The Graduate Trap

I graduated but I didn’t attend graduation. I had made the choice long before then that I wasn’t to be cajoled by sentiment into paying out yet more money I didn’t have to attend pomp. Instead, I rewarded myself for battling up through the tumult of Portsmouth’s hostel system – a web of housing associations and halfway-houses harder to ride out to a successful conclusion than an evening alone with Amnesia: The Dark Descent – and visited Granada, Spain. It may have been, in hindsight, a luxury too late and money misplaced to indulge my fancies so close to the end of my undergraduate lifeline.

As the day of my graduation loomed, the contents of my bank withered and the possibility of a late moment of caprice was revoked. Graduation, at least from an undergraduate degree, would be an experience to pass me by. Thankfully, I was granted a small reprieve on the morning of the ceremony in the form of an understated awards function and friendly drinks with my tutor.

This is all to say, in a roundabout way, that I am now a graduate with a first class degree. If I was to believe the slew of justifications and vacuous soundbites that pour forth from the party leaders when the subject of higher education is broached, I would soon be set. The conventional line [un]employed to rationalise, first tuition fees, and then their increase, was that it was a ticket to prosperity – the investment would be profitable. I was led to believe that I would be invited into the middle-classes at a canter. That I would stroll into a well paid graduate job, soon to get my immaculately polished brogues onto the property ladder, and once there live happily ever bourgeois.

‘I was led to believe’ – but I didn’t. That said, it was still jarring to make the transition into graduate life, even with my own expectations a little more tempered than those peddled to me. I spent much of July in the social equivalent of cowering, not able to face much more than repeated binges of The Simpsons and ill-advised and all too frequent visits to the pub. This collapse of will at the end of an extended period of concerted effort was explained away as an expected release. But it quickly became something far more insidious than a rest. It was a very real reaction to an increasingly bleak horizon. In a matter of months I was to finish my tenancy, run out of money, and be without income.

The latter of these was actually dealt with swiftly. I had secured employment by early July but wasn’t to start until early August, not to be paid until the end of August, mere days before the end of my tenancy. In many respects finding a job that quickly – one application, one interview, one job – was lucky. In others its indicative of my position. I am not a conventional graduate, and there are thousands like me. I do not have a familial base-camp from which to launch a career. In a market already saturated for those who can afford to endure the pressures of intern culture there is no hope for those immediately thrust into survival mode. There is no excitement looking to the possibilities ahead, no enthusiasm to trace out the prospective pathways; there is the immediate need for employment of any kind.

I am not beneath working in a bar or doing admin work, but I was struggling through with those jobs before I burdened myself with the debt of education. Tuition fees always were a flagrant con and now the foundations of the lies are being exposed. When education becomes a question of currency it becomes a consumer commodity, purchasable and saleable on finance.

Here the argument becomes a little complex. As an advocate of free higher education for all, expanded access is a positive necessity to a fairer society, but it cannot function in isolation. When sold as a ticket to increased earning opportunities at the same time that income inequality rockets, higher education become a cash cow with little thought for the aftermath. All graduates cannot be high earners in a violently individualistic neo-liberal economic model. Universal access to free higher education would be beneficial because it would be a constituent part of a fairer society. But more graduates for less jobs leads only to an expanding and more painful inequity.

This stratified, monetised world view where success is measured in growth, products, and profit, changes the root function of higher education. The emphasis on vocational degrees focused on specific industry sectors changes higher education into a training school for capitalist infrastructure. These courses aren’t wrong, neither is the will to do them, but it is questionable how many people do them with passion rather than a pragmatic attraction to their employability credentials.

I was not one of those swayed by employment stats or CV glory. I started out studying history, disliked the department so jumped ship to American Studies based almost solely on the reviews given to the lecturer. Educationally, this was the best decision I could have made. It aligned so naturally with my interests and my abilities that I was able to excel and achieve things I would not have thought possible in the years before. American Studies though…What is that? What can you do with that? I quickly became inured to these queries; the first I could answer with a concise rehearsed blurb, the second often left me pondering it myself.

The answer appears to be marketing. If I was a conspiracy theorist I would have long suspected a brokered deal between humanities faculties and marketing departments. Only a cursory glance at graduate job sites reveals a plethora of marketing opportunities. How can their be so much demand for marketing? It must be down to the job itself. So sapping of creativity is it, that people are dried out marketing husks by twenty-five and must be replaced by young blood equipped with extensive knowledge of the democratisation process in Latin America. Just as likely, is that these ‘marketing’ jobs are sales jobs in disguise. A quick hack through the jungle of jargon often shows this to be the case.

It is an unfortunate reality that creative and critical skills are not nurtured unless they are tangibly profitable. Humanities, fine arts, and performance courses are no longer presented as essential to society (if they ever were). The amassing and application of knowledge – whether it be an analysis of Victorian workhouses or a dramatisation of angst; whether manifested in books, canvas, or on the stage –  is central to cultural development. The hypocrisy of the ruling class is that they get to indulge in these pursuits whilst undermining their growth from below. It is enough to simply want to study History at Oxford, because the Oxford screams loudest, it is not simply enough to want to study History somewhere less gilded by reputation. Instead those students must furnish themselves with an armoury of transferrable skills to compete with the more concrete skills of industry feeding courses. Humanities and arts courses are now sold chiefly on the transferable skills they can develop in students. This then shapes the course structure, shifting impetus away from content and onto assessment methods. More group work, more presentations. In short; more viable marketing skills.

I can’t help but turn a little green at the thought of what might be if my degree was from an Oxbridge university. Green with envy and Bruce Banner green with rage. Before my rather long diversion I was moving onto the subject of jobs. I am fortunate that I was able to find one. But, like so many people, that fortune is short, quite literally in this case; the job is only temporary. Once I finish my time in my current role I will be cast back into a shrinking ocean. My days will once again be occupied by the dispiriting trudge through sales masquerading as marketing, miscellaneous graduate schemes, and exploitative internships. I will once again rely on the kindness of others to keep myself in a position from which I can at least attempt to put my degree to good use.

So that is where we are at: “good use.” Before uni I was aimless in my ambition. I wanted to achieve something but had no idea what. I tried many things at various colleges and none stuck. I was fortunate to be one of the last to benefit from the University’s in house Access Course. The course leader and teacher managed to identify my strengths and played a pivotal role in helping me eventually choose American Studies. I soon found what I am good at. I am good at being a student, in the academic sense. I am better at researching and writing about representations of race and gender in American culture. This is not a profitable skill. Quite the opposite, much of what I write about would be injurious to profit given any influence. But it is good use. This leaves me with only one real option if my degree is not going to become a large trinket, a transferable skills badge to attach to my CV: Post-graduate study. But to do that requires money and a job is needed to get that. I’m back there. Scholarships exist, but are scarce. What was I saying about the kindness of others?

When life is quantified by empty empirical measurements, all which falls outside of the variables is devalued. I have a degree in which the worth of the knowledge is valid currency in limited stores only. But the transferable skills are usable as reduced store credit everywhere. That expansionist American Dream that has conquered the internet telling everyone to do what they love, only counts for those who love the money in what they do. I am a graduate: Mrs. Robinson isn’t trying to seduce me.

2 thoughts on “The Graduate Trap

    1. Read this after it was re-blogged by Kathleen Kerridge today. Am now re-tweeting it to Owen Jones, who has been commenting on the rise of the intern culture and the part it plays in maintaining the status quo.

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