One of my favourite quotes from Four Weddings and a Funeral is the line uttered by Corin Redgrove when discussing the fact that he didn’t go to university. ‘University? Didn’t go myself, couldn’t see the point. What use are the novels of Wordsworth when you’re making a mint on the money markets?’
This struck a particular chord with me at the time, given that I had just taken the decision not to go to university to study English as I was working on the money markets for Lloyds bank, thoroughly enjoying both the job itself and the resulting salary. At that point in time, it made more sense to pursue a career in finance, as I was certainly earning the same amount as a graduate without any of the resulting debt. My boyfriend and I grinned at each other in recognition.
Richard Curtis clearly didn’t mean this line to be taken literally, quite the opposite, the character who uttered the line was a caricature of an ill-educated, misogynistic thick-skinned upper-class ignoramus. Had he been to university then he would have known that Wordsworth hadn’t actually written any novels. The implication being that those who haven’t been are somehow lacking refinement and knowledge. It was something of a sneer by the member of the liberal intelligensia.
This is a prejudice that I have suffered from almost all my adult working life. My husband used to belong to an on-line dating site. Being an intellectual, cerebral sort of chap, he had listed that a university education was a desirable quality in any potential spouse. He admitted that had he known that I didn’t have a degree when he first met me, then he might well have presumed me to perhaps not being intellectually suited to or compatible with him, as by his own admission, romantically speaking, he prefers intelligent woman. When he discovered that I didn’t have a degree, he decided that I was something of an anomaly.
At this point, it seems wise to give a brief précis of my career history to date. Despite having the grades to go to university, I decided not to go for various reasons. Career-wise, up until this point, it’s never held me back apart from some condescension from various city colleagues. From temping on the money markets of Lloyds I then was offered a job with the top accountancy firm in the UK. My good A Level grades meant that I was able to study for the ACCA qualification at the same time as being paid a decent city salary. ACCA is almost identical to the qualification of ICAEW, it means one is a certified accountant as opposed to a chartered accountant, however entry level to chartered accountancy requires a degree in any discipline and thus has more kudos. After a few years where I was stuck on an infamous insolvency case, which is never out of the media, I decided that accountancy wasn’t for me after all, had a severe case of itchy feet and restlessness, I felt that I had missed out on the university experience, on three years of fun and travel and thus got a job as cabin crew, flying all over the world, generally having a whale of a time. Again, no degree was necessary, a degree in tourism wouldn’t guarantee you a job whereby personality and a presentable appearance were the main selection criteria. Knowing about the intricacies of the industry may be interesting, but of no value when you have to deal with either a drunken passenger or safety issue at 35,000 feet. The job is all about thinking on one’s feet, handling difficult situations and keeping calm, focused and professional, no matter what. An ability to get on with anyone and everyone is also a huge advantage. No degree can equip you with those skills and the salary is not enough to merit taking on a significant debt. Those who fly do it for the lifestyle, because they genuinely enjoy the job and the travel perks, not for financial gain. I know I did and at times I still have a lingering regret that I no longer grace the skies with my presence!
‘Real life’ encroached however, a mortgage called, so I reluctantly decided it was time to re-enter the “real world”. Having decided that accountancy was not for me, I then decided to do a Pitman Executive PA Diploma, to give me some marketable skills, notably becoming a shorthand and Powerpoint whizz. Together with my former financial background, I had absolutely no problem at all in landing fantastic jobs in economic research. I worked for Warner Brothers, two investment banks and in Private Equity. It was my financial skills and my almost fluent French that were of interest, the PA skills were really the icing on the cake.
City life was really not compatible with the demands of a young baby, not least in terms of the time spent commuting and after a brief return to work in a company that was less than flexible, I became a stay at home mother for a few years. Circumstances dictated that I needed to return to work and my skills and previous experience meant that I landed roles as an office manager, not earning city money admittedly, but still a decent salary of over £30K. A degree was not an issue, nor was the fact that I had taken 2 years out of the workplace.
Marrying and moving to a new area coincided with the credit crunch, so the Office Manager, Executive Assistant roles to be found locally were non-existent. In addition I noticed that adverts for these roles specified that a degree was preferable. I found applications rejected on the grounds that I did not have a degree; some over-zealous HR admin assistant assigned the role of filtering through numerous applications had simply set-aside those CVs without a degree. All of a sudden, not having a degree was suddenly proving to be a hindrance. A degree is completely unnecessary for the role of Office Manager or Executive PA. It might indicate a level of knowledge, intelligence and critical thinking, it’s “nice” to have, but in all my years of working I have never once needed a degree to be able to carry out my job to a high standard. I read extensively, am interested in current affairs and politics and am able to engage in intelligent and informed discourse. Knowing the qualities of epic poetry and being able to discuss the merits of Aristotle and Plato is a worthy and admirable achievement, but in a day-to-day busy office environment, is utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t help you organise a staff of 200 nor does it assist with budgeting.
So I have some sympathy with today’s young school leavers who seem to need a degree if they are not to be written off or consigned to unskilled labour. In today’s climate, it is unlikely that I’d be able to have had the successful career that I have had to date without a degree. Partly due to the current emphasis upon a degree being a necessary qualification for entry level to any career, a legacy left by the previous administration with their 50% quota, I am now embarking upon a degree. Admittedly another motivation is that I wish to pursue a career in teaching, for which a degree is an essential pre-requisite. After all our children deserve nothing less than highly qualified professionals with an in-depth specialist subject knowledge. Finally, I have always had a passion for literature and I figure that if I am going to spend 3 years losing potential income as well as gaining a not insubstantial debt, then it may as well be in a subject for which I have enthusiasm. My only problem has been deciding between English, History, Philosophy, Theology and French, I’m probably better suited to the American Liberal Arts model. There is some degree of selfishness in my decision. I am doing this, not only because I feel a vocation towards young people, because I think that I have much to offer the profession but also because at the moment it fits in well with my current family circumstances. With young children it seems the ideal time to fit in study and of course if I am successful then teaching is great profession to be able to fit in around the needs of a young family.
When the current fee proposals came in I was outraged. In an ideal world, there should be no tuition fees, there should be access to Higher Education to all who are eligible and able to benefit from it. Therein lies the problem. It is not feasible for the government to be able to provide free university education for 50% of the population. The answer seems to lie in either fewer people going to university, or students, who will benefit from their education in terms of earning capacity, to bear the majority of costs. As someone who aspires to teach, if successful I will be earning significantly less than in my former career and the thought of a potential £30K debt on top of that was an absolute anathema, as was the idea that I would put myself into huge amounts of debt for a career in public service. Certainly I would not have chosen the university that I am currently attending, who are 3rd in the country for my subject, behind Oxbridge and who will be charging the full amount. In fact, Oxbridge was available to me but not accessible on the grounds of logistics, as opposed to money.
Having studied the proposals in depth, I have come to the conclusion that though not ideal, actually they are significantly fairer and more workable than the alternative of a graduate tax. As a mature student with limited means and on a low family income, I would be significantly better off. My first 2 years tuition fees would be paid, I would qualify for a higher maintenance grant and my repayment terms would be much more favourable than at present. If I qualify as a teacher, under the current system I will pay back £49.41 a month. Under the new fees this drops to £4.41 a month. There is absolutely no disincentive for the poorest to attend an Russell League or 1994 Group University. This is where the coalition has worked well, the Lib Dems need to be given credit for softening the original plans and for ensuring that there is no bar for the very poorest students, though the middle-income students will be hit the hardest. It takes courage, honesty and humility for anyone to concede that they were wrong. The Lib Dem ideology with regards to tuition fees was not wrong in itself, more foolhardy; as Baroness Williams suggested, they were perhaps foolish or precipitous in signing their pre-election pledge, without first being fully aware of the facts, namely the crippling amount of debt that the UK finds itself in.
It’s a fudge, it doesn’t go as far as the Browne report (commissioned by Labour) suggests, in that it doesn’t completely lift caps, but it is infinitely more progressive than the current system we have in place. What I would like to see is fewer courses of negligible value, such as the degree in Homeopathy currently offered by Thames Valley University or the degree in Travel and Tourism offered by the University of Hertfordshire. Perhaps if we accepted that a degree is not an essential pre-requisite for a successful career, perhaps if university places were limited to those most suited to academic study, on the grounds of ability, not money, perhaps if not going to university was not seen as a second-class option, perhaps if people didn’t see university education as an automatic right, regardless of ability, then free university education would once more become available. With a 50% university attendance rate, a degree is rapidly becoming as devalued a coinage as the former ‘gold standard’ A Level. A necessary piece of paper and an expensive one at that. With a higher level of fees, minds will certainly be focussed upon whether or not this a worthwhile use of three years and of funds. For those aspiring to Oxbridge the answer will remain the same. For those wishing to study a degree in Popular Music at Northampton University, alternative options may now seem infinitely more attractive and sensible.
In the meantime I’ll stick to the novels of Wordsworth. Shouldn’t take too long.
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