Why I... am disillusioned with degrees

June 14, 2002

Time and experience have made me a dab hand at fare dodging. God save the persecuted touts that lurk in the corners of London Underground! I have them to thank for almost affordable travel cards. That is, when my foraging among the rubbish outside the station proves fruitless.

A petty criminal? A tramp? A cast off in the community? No. The owner of a top CV. A graduate, and not just a graduate, but a core-subject Ivy-League one. Graduated now for a whole year, with a certificate in English-language-teaching-to-adults to boot! A respectable citizen. The cream of Britain's future. Or so I was led to believe.

I laugh mirthlessly as I spy The Times Good University Guide over breakfast at 1pm. I have no job to rise early for. I scan the post and my heart sinks. Only one letter today and I recognise the font on the envelope. I do not disrespect the Job Centre. It keeps in touch regularly and has been my only reliable income over the past year.

How nice it would be to receive a reply from one of the 30 English-language schools to which I have recently applied, just as a common courtesy. I can handle rejection. I've had lots of practice.

I think of my friends and acquaintances: fellow graduates. I wonder how so many of us have become excluded. We have been and are painstakingly trying to wedge our toe in the door. So desperate are we that our choice of door has widened. Sadly, for a lot of us any door will do. We readily accept slave labour, cleverly renamed "work experience", in the hope that it may lead to the elusive paid contract. Or we simply make our part-time student jobs full-time occupations. Many of us go back and pay to join the growing league of masters.

Among my graduate friends are couriers, fundraisers and waitresses. Neither are we all arts graduates. The serving public is peppered with engineers and linguists. I've become accustomed to the pitying looks of fellow waitresses, students who do not realise that, sadly, the only thing keeping us apart is an incomplete degree and a large debt.

Tuition fees have made debt a respectable accessory to a degree. After all, a degree promises higher earning potential. Well, it is all in the last word. I think of my friend who joined a bank straight after A levels. She's the lucky one, jetting off in five-star style. Sadly, I can't afford to go shopping and haven't since at least graduation. Even my birthday money will be spent regaining control of my credit card. Maybe I would have been better off staying in my gap-year bank job.

My heart is also with those duped parents. This Peter Pan generation clings like glue! All the money spent on educating us so that we can comfortably flee the nest. My Mum pleads that I'm too good for the local telesales vacancy: the recruitment officer says I'm not good enough. I do not apply.

I could apply to work in a shop or choose from a vast array of call centres in my locality, but I am a victim of my education. I have been taught that I can achieve more than this. More importantly, I've borrowed £10,000 and invested £4,000 to escape this.

I feel cheated. No careers adviser before or since university warned me about a prolonged, at times seemingly endless, unemployment. The kind that threatens to attack the core of self-esteem built by education. I never thought sleeping would become a pastime at the age of 22.

I look at sixth formers, friends of my brother. They are exuberant and expectant about the benefits a degree should bring. I recognise myself a few years back and I want to warn them. A year ago, when I was doing my finals, how important it all seemed. Thank God I had no crystal ball! I wonder how prepared this year's graduates will be.

I scan the The Times Good University Guide . Imperial or Sunderland, Luton or Oxford. Sadly, I know waiters and waitresses across the board.


Alice Smyth
English graduate
University College London

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