A graduate asks: “Is the university education system failing us?”

Tomorrow I will receive my results for my visual culture BA at Brighton University. The course fees for my three years of study almost total £10,000. Add to that my loan for my living costs and I will graduate with a debt of over £19,000. But I consider myself one of the lucky ones; as I was eligible for grants as I am from a low-income, single parent family and I don’t have a student overdraft or previous debts to add into the mix. Like many other graduates I am now asking if the of my higher education cost was really worth it, and with interest on student loans set to increase from 0% to 4.4% reflecting the recent jump in inflation rates, our repayments could still leave us in the red. And that’s if we get a job.

Potential students have applied in record numbers in the hope of bettering themselves, but it is estimated this year almost a quarter of million people will miss out on university places due to cuts. Unemployment is higher than ever at 8%, an increase of 3% in two years. Things are worse for graduates, research in November 2009 showed that graduate unemployment was up 44% in just 12 months, its highest rate since the mid 90’s. The recession is also grappling graduate schemes into submission,  the government announced yesterday it was closing its own home office scheme due to cuts. Job searching has now become so competitive people are finding that they don’t just need a degree, but relevant work experience or a masters before they can get a foothold on the career ladder. In three years the employment pool has changed so dramatically we are left wondering if University education adds value to our skill set.

I have worked for and received higher education. One gripe I have with the system is the way students are seen as customers, not learners. When we pick a university course, we window shop at fairs, consult and compare courses in league tables and brochures, even ask other people their experiences. There is almost too much choice around, some universities even advertise to get students to apply. Companies – sometimes affiliated with student unions – target students and their disposable income. Landlords and housing associations know that they can overcharge students to live in abysmal conditions because demand for housing is so high. As a result, complaints by students are up by over a third from the last two years and doubling in the last five years. More than ever we are demanding top education for the money we are paying, and with government funding being slashed by  £1billion as well as decreased employment prospects, we are not happy with the treatment we are receiving. University used to be a privilege. Now it is a business.

I watched this very interesting talk by Sir Ken Robinson at the recent TED conference on how education needs a revolution. Following from his influential 2006 talk, he suggests that we are facing a crisis of human resources because we are not creating a diverse workforce.  People don’t even know their own talents, something that education should help us to realise. He claims that education is too linear and standardised; it sets you down a path of expectations and guidelines created to fulfil industrial progress. Life itself is not that simple, it expands organically according to circumstance and its surroundings. University should not create graduates, but it should allow them to grow and realise their own potential. We need to realise our own talents, not pick which ones we prefer.

I firmly believe that university isn’t for everybody. Too many go because their parents expect it from them, or because it seems the next logical step. I think it should be a requirement that students should take at least a year out of education after their A-levels to reach the intellectual maturity a life away from home expects from you. Many may see it as a doss, but the life experience cannot be taught in a classroom. I took two years out after my art foundation, sandwiching a year in Australia between saving. Taking the time out to focus on myself and not the expectations of others helped me to realise what I wanted out of my life. This is something I think everyone else needs do before they sign that pledge with student loans; it could be a very expensive mistake realising half way through a course that uni isn’t for you.

This brings me to where I think university succeeds, which is the concept of it as an experience. My course was a reading degree. I could dissect for you the cost of each lecture, but really I was paying for the materials and guidance that I already had within myself to quench my thirst for knowledge; I have learnt a lot on my degree but maybe not £10,000 worth. The real skills that I have learnt and can transfer to my future career are the things that I have learnt through the whole university experience, not just on my course. This includes my volunteering, my work on the student paper and my experience with the different people I have met throughout my time in Brighton. The course you choose is just the foundation. The whole experience is an adventure, where at the end you emerge a well-rounded person, aware of their strengths and weaknesses, with a new determination to succeed at whatever life next throws at you.

I may be too late to be preaching to those that have already applied for this year, but I urge future students to pick a university not just on its credentials, but also on its location and the type of students that go there. Immerse yourself in a whole new experience. Try new things. Join societies and sports teams. Volunteer. Go out as much as you can and meet new people. Never again will you have the freedom to do absolutely anything you want. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

So three years and £19,000 later, was it all worth it? Absolutely. I would do it again if I could. But like life, uni is only what you make of it. Grab it with both arms.

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5 thoughts on “A graduate asks: “Is the university education system failing us?”

  1. I agree with every word you wrote.

    University is not just a place to learn. You find out who you are and 90% of what you gain from university cannot be taught in a classroom. Learning people skills, living away from home, managing your own time, independence and other things that can’t be read from a book.

    I agree that students are seen too often as a business acquisition rather than a group of individuals who are some of the most intellectual and creative people I have ever had the chance of meeting.

    The Government needs to stop looking at the numbers and remember the real reason why the majority of us have made this life changing decision.

  2. Just listening to the talk. It’s very good 🙂 Making me feel inspired and think.

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