So after a thousand years or so of British higher education, people are finally questioning whether university is such a good idea after all. Whether it's members of the establishment telling young people that university is a waste of time or chest-thumping millennials proudly declaring they got a job without a degree, the mood around university is changing. This month it was revealed that a third of recent graduates say they now regret their degree.
To me, this whole argument is one of privilege – statements made by middle class people who already have so much education and access to the jobs market that they don't need the system.
For three years before I went to university, I lived in hostels, the shitty temporary accommodation the government sends homeless people when they have nowhere else to put them. I was a teenager living without any family. I felt almost sure that I would never go to uni, that I was not the right kind of person.
But I did the application because that's what everyone at school was doing and miraculously, I got an interview at Cambridge. Soon after, I traipsed across the grass of my prestigious college, sat at its prestigious fountain, and chain-smoked. My teacher had called me the evening before to remind me not to wear tights with holes in them, so I wore an American Apparel dress because I thought wearing a dress meant you looked smart. I remember sitting there, surrounded by all this tradition and glory feeling really, quite insignificant. A few months later, when the letter arrived offering me a place, I was certain it was because I had ticked every "disadvantage" box and nothing more. I would be reminded of that fact for three years to come.
Even when I got there, it still felt like I wasn't supposed to be. In my first year, when I regularly donned a two-piece Nike tracksuit to the library, I was frequently chased through the college gates by officials demanding to know whether I "went here".
I remember being furious. Had I not earned my right when I passed the interview? But I hadn't, and that was some of the most valuable learning that university could have ever given to me. After a year of being an outcast ("a bit rough round the edges", is how I remember peers describing me, to my face), I decided it was time I learned to fit in. So I joined a bunch of societies. I brought bottles of wine to people's rooms when they invited me over. I started to say I understood where people were coming from when they said horrible, elitist things, so they would view me as "passionate" rather than "aggressive". And I began to "educate myself" in the ways of my posher mates, mainly by means of university grants that would pay for me to go to the theatre and on holidays to look at museums. If you were seen as poor, the university would give you money for pretty much anything. I even got given a grant to go and see The Lion King.
University provides three years' experience in being able to mimic the middle class.
Maybe this all sounds like a funny Cambridge Neverland, irrelevant to the real world, where such intricacies aren't important. But, in fact, my experience at university prepared me for a jobs market in which candidates are judged on everything but their credentials. This was shown last year by the Social Mobility and Poverty Commission, who found that employers are still using indicators of class – such as your accent and whether or not you've travelled – rather than ability when they are hiring.
For many working class people, university provides three years' experience in being able to mimic middle-class-ness. That might sound awful, but it is only mimicking that has given me the freedom and choice to be listened to in society. When I go to the Jobcentre with my brother now, a manager will come down and speak to us because I can use an accent which says I have a right to be listened to. Do I think that's credible? Of course not, but as Kenny Imafidon – a law student from BPP who was the was the first person in the UK to complete his A-Levels from a prison cell – tells me, "it's definitely a determining factor. Whether we think it's got any credibility, society does."
Qayyum, a graduate from the University of Westminster, agrees. "As an Asian, working class lad, you have to work harder to get to the same position as a white middle class person. You're aware of the way that you speak and you know that you're not accepted generally, so when you go into these spheres of influence, you feel like an imposter. Part of uni was getting used to being in that established space and feeling comfortable, realising that I had just as much right to speak as any of these other people".
For working class people, university can be a revelatory experience in understanding that being smart at school doesn't really prepare you for success in life. For example, coming from a family that didn't really work, I didn't know what a lot of jobs were. I thought that working in banking meant that you wore a uniform and only ever talked to people through a glass screen in case they gobbed in your face when their pay cheque didn't come through.
"Going to university and having friends who are now lawyers and entrepreneurs has helped me understand about a whole bunch of professions that I wouldn't have otherwise known about. A lot of the fellowships I've subsequently applied for I only knew about because of more connected people I met at uni," says Alvin Carpio, a graduate from SOAS.
It's not just the "professional" industries that create these barriers. I remember being told in a year 9 drama class that you could go into film if you wanted to, but it might be hard to find work as an actress. Most people who I knew didn't know what being a "runner" or having the "right work experience" was. Like most kids who don't know people who work in these fields, I genuinely thought that I just had to write letters to people and tell them how well I did in my maths GCSE to get a job. "It's the kind of stuff that you can get at uni which people from more privileged backgrounds take for granted," as Alvin puts it.
Ifka Adunki, a former asylum seeker from Somalia who went to Hertfordshire University, spoke to me about her experiences."When I came to this country I was seven. I'd never had any formal education because I came from Somalia and the whole country was war-torn. Secondary school was my first formal education. I couldn't read or write – so getting to university was really surreal for me. It gave me a taste of what my future would be like."
Ifka now runs her own youth charity. I asked her what she thinks about the recent finding by the Intergenerational Foundation that the so-called 'graduate premium' (the amount extra you're supposed to earn from having a degree) no longer outweighs the debt of going to university. "Of course it's not fair that it costs so much to go to university. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't go. Going to university meant I was invited to the conversation, if that makes sense. I wasn't judged by other people's standards anymore. I was judged by standards I understood."
I am angry that our university system is pricing some of the poorest people out – but does that really justify the claim that these people should no longer apply? "I don't want people to see university as if it's a pointless thing," says Kenny. "The dropout rate of young black men from university is higher than average. The Amos Bursary, where I got my scholarship, is designed to help you through that because of the recognition of what young black men go through, because of how many drop out when they feel excluded from student life. But if you're a young black man without a degree and you're competing with people with degrees, well, that's even worse."
Now that I've gone to Cambridge, employers can conceptualise my disadvantage as some 'girl dun good' story.
Almost everyone I spoke with had the same message: that if you're working class, university opens doors for you that would have otherwise remained shut. But I suppose it's easy for people to say university is worth it with the benefit of hindsight, so I wanted to speak to someone who chose not to go. I speak with a young woman from Hackney. "I've got a criminal record. Add that I haven't gone to university and people think I'm a complete write-off," she says. "I'm basically having to beg employers to take a look at me. It's not like I don't have the experience I need, but it's like, if I had a degree, at least they could tell themselves I turned myself round or something."
Now that I've gone to Cambridge, employers can conceptualise my disadvantage as some "girl dun good" story, but those without the miracle ending don't get to rebrand their shitty experiences in that way.
There are so many valuable jobs in the world – in construction, nursing, IT, and more – that don't necessarily require degrees. But the idea that a university degree can be reduced to, on average, how much it cost and the returns you make on it, is a dangerously middle class idea. That kind of analysis doesn't take into account where you start in life. For the rest of us, university can still change your life.
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