It is now graduation season, when approximately 800,000 (mostly) young people up and down the country decide for once in their lives that it is worth dressing smartly and donning a cap and gown so that they can walk across a stage at their university, have their hands clasped by a ceremonial ‘academic’, and take photos with their parents. Graduation looked a little different for me as a married woman who still lives in my university city, but the concept remains the same. Graduates are encouraged to celebrate the start of their working lives by continuing in the exact same way that they have lived for the prior 21 years: by drinking, partying, and ‘doing what you love’ rather than taking responsibility for continuing your family and country’s legacy.
However, something I have noticed this year which contrasts from previous years is that graduates are starting to be a lot more honest about the reality of degree regret. For now, this sentiment is largely contained in semi-sarcastic social media posts and anonymous surveys, but I consider it a victory that the cult of education is slowly but surely starting to be criticised. CNBC found that in the US (where just over 50% of working age people have a degree), a shocking 44% of job-seekers regret their degrees. Unsurprisingly, journalism, sociology, and liberal arts are the most regretted degrees (and lead to the lowest-paying jobs). A majority of jobseekers with degrees in these subjects said that if they could go back, they would study a different subject such as computer science or business. Even in the least regretted majors (computer science and engineering), only around 70% said that they would do the same degree if they could start again. Given that CNBC is hardly a network known to challenge prevailing narratives, we can assume that in reality the numbers are probably slightly higher.
A 2020 article detailed how Sixth Form and College students feel pressured to go to university, and 65% of graduates regret it. 47% said that they were not aware of the option of pursuing a degree apprenticeship, which demonstrates a staggering lack of information. Given how seriously educational institutions supposedly take their duty to prepare young people for their future, this appears to be a significant failure. Parental pressure is also a significant factor, as 20% said that they did not believe their parents would have been supportive had they chosen an alternative such as a degree apprenticeship, apprenticeship, or work. This is understandable given the fact that for our parent’s generation, a degree truly was a mark of prestige and a ticket to the middle class, but due to credential inflation this is no longer the case. They were wrong, but only on the matter of scale, as a survey of parents found that as many as 40% had a negative attitude towards alternative paths.
Reading this, you may think that I am totally against the idea of a university being a place to learn gloriously useless subjects for the sake of advancing knowledge that may in some very unlikely situations become useful to mankind. Universities should be a place to conceptualise new ways the world could be, and a place where the best minds from around the world gather to genuinely push the frontiers of knowledge forward. What I object to is the idea that universities be a 3-year holiday from the real world and responsibilities towards family and community, a place to ‘find oneself’ rather than finding meaning in the outer world, a dating club, or a tool for social mobility. I do not object to taxpayer funding for research if it passes a meaningful evaluation of value for money and is not automatically covered under the cultish idea that any investment in education is inherently good.
In order to avoid the epidemic of degree regret that we are currently facing, we need to hugely reduce the numbers of students admitted for courses which are oft regretted. This is not with the aim of killing off said subjects, but enhancing the education available to those remaining as they will be surrounded by peers who genuinely share their interest and able to derive more benefit from more advanced teaching and smaller classes. Additionally, we need to stop filling the gaps in our technical workforce with immigration and increase the number of academic and vocational training placements in fields such as computer science and engineering. With regards to the negative attitudes, I described above, these will largely be fixed as the millennial generation filled with degree regret comes to occupy senior positions and reduces the stigma of not being a graduate within the workplace. By being honest about the nature of tomorrow’s job market, we can stop children from growing up thinking that walking across the stage in a gown guarantees you a lifetime of prosperity.
On a rare personal note, having my hands clasped in congratulations for having wasted three years of my life did not feel like an achievement. It felt like an embarrassment to have to admit that 4 years ago when I filled out UCAS applications to study politics; I was taken for a fool. I have not had my pre-existing biases challenged and my understanding of the world around me transformed by my degree as promised. As an 18-year-old going into university, I knew that my criticisms of the world around me were ‘wrong’, and I was hoping that and education/indoctrination would ‘fix’ me. Obviously given the fact that 3 years later I am writing for the Mallard this is not the case, and all I have realised from my time here is that there are others out there, and my thoughts never needed to be fixed.