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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.