Freshers Week

by Beth Cherryman

They wear Leopard-skin togas. They drink gut-wrenching combinations of cheap alcohol. They wander the streets in thousands, crawling out of sticky-floored nightclubs in the wee hours of the morning. Yes, it’s that time again…Freshers’ week.

Fresh-faced and delirious with newfound freedom this strange breed embarks on their university career with all the naïve optimism their parents, teachers or even the last Labour government encourages with anecdotes of “the time of my life” and promises of graduate jobs and higher salaries.

Three-years ago, that was me (minus the leopard-skin toga). An avid Today Programme listener, I was filled with happy notions of students sitting around watching daytime TV and mooching between bookshops and backstreet cafes. Don’t worry I was quickly disillusioned.

The workload is a terrifying step up from A Level. To get a regular 9 to 5 job seems like the easier option. Add to this the pressure of knowing that anything less than a 2:1 undermines the opportunity cost of attending university. Suddenly your classmates are your competition. Your lecturers are no longer a font of wisdom waiting to be tapped by the interested and eager, but a resource for passing the exam. The secret to success is ‘follow the syllabus’ rather than ‘follow your curiosity’.

I chose to study philosophy because I wanted an education rather than a training. I spent 13 years jumping through the petty and pointless hoops of the state school system in the hopes that one day I’d get to university and that all encompassing education I so desperately craved.  Instead I entered a world where university is a constraining commercial investment, the risk-averse succeed and the hoop jumping continues.

Don’t get me wrong. There are good parts. Critical thinking remains the core of many university degrees. In that sense graduates should be armed with the fundamental skills necessary to navigate civilised society; capable of debating how we should live and criticising established beliefs.

Still, I feel that my degree has been reduced to yet another qualification worth gaining because without it I have little to no chance of landing a creative sector job. But if there becomes little or no chance of landing a creative sector job even with a degree – as I fear we are starting to see – this business model will fail.

University education is confused. It serves a variety of purposes, but does not serve a single purpose well.