Students graduate from the University of Birmingham. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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In defence of idle students

Students graduating from university face huge debt, a difficult job market and declining starting salaries. Despite this, we shouldn’t allow education to become dominated by economics.

Another careers talk and the same advice: “Don’t worry too much about finding a job – there’s only so much you can do to prepare”. The group of students sit around, bemused. It’s our seventh talk in a series of meetings with successful employees as part of a student development programme. For each, the details of the story are different. But one over-riding factor is common to all of their advice. Each speaker proclaims that they just “fell into a job”.

This puzzles us. Having been lectured for years on the importance of qualifications, extra-curricular activities and work experience, we’d been raised on the belief that every choice we made as a student would have a direct impact on our career. Indeed, I'm still haunted by my secondary school careers talk, which came with the hideously cringe-worthy mantra “fail to prepare and prepare to fail”. So, you might expect that after years of stressing over internships and CVs, we undergraduates would be somewhat relieved to hear that finding a job was easier than the Battle Royale-style struggle we’d come to expect.

But rather than a revelation, a feeling of suspicion and resentment dominated. We shared an envy of a time where graduate’s degrees were widely respected, and sufficient to warrant a job.

Today, attitudes towards degrees are different; 47 per cent of graduates work in non-graduate jobs, while graduate unemployment remains worryingly high. To add to an already bleak outlook, average graduate starting salaries have decreased by 11 per cent in real terms over the past five years, and the burden of tuition fees means that 45 per cent of graduates will never earn enough to pay off their student loans.

Worse still, long before graduation, the race for most students has already begun. Over a third of graduate jobs are filled by students who had previously completed work experience, often unpaid, with the company, while other employers scrutinise application forms for substantial evidence that applicants have held positions of responsibility in university societies. Such intense competition has also changed our impression of academic results – without a 2:1, many employers won’t even consider a job application.

Students are well aware of this. Surveys suggest that we’re working harder (and partying less) than ever before, while research from Warwick University reveals that students are becoming increasingly career-focused. Indeed, the pressure of finding a career has entirely transformed the way that many view university. It’s not unfamiliar for roles in student societies to be advertised based on the “CV points” that one can garner by taking part. Student newspapers and campaigning groups, once powered by passion and enthusiasm, now seem driven predominately by students’ career ambitions.

Perhaps most troubling is the age from which students are faced with this pressure. One friend I spoke to recounted how his pastimes and interests during secondary school had been “invalidated” by teachers who encouraged their students to “fill every waking moment” with activities that could be referenced on an application form. Indeed, another friend noted that “even at the age of 13, I was doing activities based solely on how they would look on my CV”, which “stifled creativity and caused anxiety”. One undergraduate even went as far to describe how such a culture meant students were being “pressured to turn themselves into a product”.

These attitudes towards careers are perhaps most apparent in how students approach studying at university. One undergraduate commented how many of her peers had chosen a degree course based purely on graduate employment rates, even though “they admitted that they would’ve preferred to study something else”. This trend is further supported by academic research. A study from King’s College London found evidence of a “consumerist ethos” among students, considering the “financial value” of their economic “investment” in a degree.

Many of these attitudes are undoubtedly a result of the distinct political changes that have dominated higher education in recent years. With the raising of tuition fees came a new philosophy; one of marketisation and competition. Indeed, David Willetts, then Universities Minister, defended degrees as a “good investment”, while other members of the government boasted how the changes meant that students were scrutinising whether a degree provided value for money.

Yet we should be wary of such economic language and the fixation with financial benefit. The implication that a degree is “worth” investing in because of the associated increase in career earnings neglects a crucial aspect of university, and education more generally.

This might sound very abstract, perhaps even self-indulgent. Yet when speaking to anyone about their university experience, the clichés of “the best days of your life” and “maturing” as a person crop up so consistently that is hard to doubt that previous generations held a less career-dominated view of university. Higher education provides an immense opportunity for intellectual curiosity and self-reflection; a scarce chance to pursue interests regardless of whether they provide financial gain.

Such concepts are hard to quantify, but evidence exists in support of the importance of education for its own sake. Reading fiction, for example, has been shown to help develop empathy – one study even went as far as to demonstrate a relationship between reading habits and tolerance towards the LGBT community. Similarly, university is a hotbed of diverse ideas and is a great opportunity to meet students from an array of different backgrounds. It may be difficult to quantify these aspects of student life, but this isn’t to say that they’re worthless.

And it just about pretentious students “discovering themselves” – the student body’s freedom from career concerns and economic pressures has traditionally been of enormous benefit to society. Having propelled the feminist and LGBT movements at times when others showed only disinterest, we have much to thank idealistic students for. Similarly, the anti-apartheid campaign was accelerated by the student movement. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the world would be very different today had it not been for students who quite proudly, and slightly pompously, expressed a lack of concern towards their own career prospects.

It’s often argued that we live in a post-ideological age, that students are selfish and that student activism is dead. Yet, while it’s undoubtedly true that students are disillusioned with politicians (59 per cent of young people don’t plan to vote in the next general election), this anger shouldn’t be mistaken for apathy.

Likewise, the fear and anxiety students share regarding their future shouldn’t be confused with political indifference. You only need to consider the plethora of online student campaigns and e-petitions to realise that the student body still cares about activism and wider society. The difference is that when plagued with anxiety regarding our future, such incessant worry encourages us to structure our student experience with more self-interested, individualistic, activities in mind.

It might seem cynical to suggest that the government’s plan to increase tuition fees and entrap students in debt was to distract a powerful and conscientious group from political campaigning, yet such a claim doesn’t seem unreasonable. Regardless, it’s no surprise that students today are generally less forthcoming to protest considering the huge challenges we face upon graduation.

Maybe I’m idealising the past, or am too ready to believe a rose-tinted view of the university experience of decades ago. Perhaps I’m just scared about the prospect of having to find a job. But the culture of students constantly obsessing over the accumulation of “CV points” has left me thinking that university, the supposed “best days of our life,” should be about something more than preparing for a career.

Nonetheless, as I hear about my friend’s glamorous new internship, I’ll continue to apply to similar programmes, caught up in the same rush to acquire as much career experience as possible. Maybe, at least for the meantime, the self-fulfilling cycle of career anxieties and competition is here to stay.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.