From career path to rite of passage

August 8, 1997

BEFORE I left the University of Sussex, a senior member of faculty made a good point to me. "It seems that most of our graduates are happy with the time they have spent here," he said. "But the question is, is being happy enough?"

In the run-up to my graduation ceremony last Tuesday, this question kept going through my mind. At the ceremony, my peer group and I were certainly happy - as well as being relieved and pretty proud of ourselves. But the member of faculty's question was about something more fundamental, and less subjective, than our state of mind or our opinions of Sussex.

What does having a degree really mean? When you head for the careers office after your last exam, what are you hoping your predicted result will add to your CV? When you think back to your college years, how many of the fond memories will be of your specialist subject and how many will be of memorable nights in the bar?

Whatever happens after Dearing, one thing is certain. Degrees do not, and will not, represent the same thing as they used to ten, even five, years ago. More people than ever before go through the university system: a trend likely to continue. More people than ever graduate, most of whom will obtain a second-class honours. University education is no longer reserved for the young elite, but involves people of all ages and from all walks of life.

This means that the total experience of going to university, and of graduating, has changed fundamentally. For students in the 18 to 21 age group, university is becoming less a means to a particular end than a rite of passage: something you expect yourself and your friends to go through, and something that your parents expect you to go through. Like the United States high-school graduation, completing your degree involves all the pomp and pride of moving on to the next stage of your life. You are not the new intellectual elite, but you are reaching adulthood.

Two things about my own graduation ceremony reinforced this comparison. The first was the sheer number of people who attended. A total of 1,770 undergraduates gained degrees from Sussex this year:as the university boasted at the ceremony, the largest number ever. Of these, 301 graduated in absentia. The remaining 1,469 were there with their parents, all in their gowns, having their photos taken. Clearly, getting your degree is as special today as ever.

The second feature of the ceremony that made me think of the US was a T-shirt my grandmother bought me. On the back, it carried the slogan "Class of 97", with all the graduates' names printed underneath. Images of yearbooks and rooms sprang to mind, and I began to imagine future school reunions, except, of course, we had not just left school. The difference between UK and US graduations in the past was that the US experience really was a rite of passage, for most young people. What they did next, their choice of university, their job, where they lived - was what made them different.

Today, there is a clear similarity between the experience of British graduates and that of younger teenagers across the Atlantic. Having a degree does not mean you have got there so much as it means that you have completed the necessary precondition for getting there in the time ahead of you. And yes, finally reaching adulthood does make for a lot of happy graduates.

But is being happy enough? Provided you recognise the degree ceremony and your certificate for what it is, graduating is a good day out. The key thing is not to kid ourselves. Graduates are not specialists in their subjects or an elite destined for great things. All they are is a bit older than when they started.

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