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13 August 2022updated 22 Aug 2022 2:08pm

Learning for its own sake is lovely, but that’s not all university is for

I’m sure Cambridge University teaches many skills, but the real career boost comes from “Cambridge” being on your CV.

By Marie Le Conte

Wasn’t Big Boys brilliant? The Channel 4 comedy came out earlier this year and seemingly charmed everyone. It was funny, sharp and full of heart; a wonderful tribute to gay culture, working class experiences, and the power of friendship between young men.

It made me feel terrible. Big Boys was written by Jack Rooke and based on the time he spent at Westminster University, doing the same journalism degree I did but a few years later. Our experiences couldn’t have been more different.

Rooke was the first person in his family to go to university; my family is so steeped in academia that my great-grandfather taught at a madrasa in Marrakech around a century ago. He grew up less than 20 minutes away from the Harrow campus but found the move overwhelming; I came all the way from France without a second thought.

As he puts it in his show, which is autobiographical, going to university changed his life. Even as a child, the possibility of me leaving education at 18 never crossed my mind. It wasn’t that I liked studying – I’ve always hated it and couldn’t wait to enter the workforce. University was just something you did for three years, to pass the time while getting your parents off your back.

In the end, passing the time was exactly what I did. I partied very hard and had a lovely time discovering London, and made occasional trips to my campus just so the lecturers would know what I looked like. Over the course of one especially memorable semester, I didn’t go to a single lecture. I came out with a 2:1 and the broad ability to keep myself alive. No one has asked me about my degree since then.

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In truth, there is no reason why they should have. Towards the end of my third year I interned for this very magazine and learned more in those two weeks than I had in the preceding two and a half years. It isn’t that the degree was inherently bad – journalism is just one of those professions that you learn by doing.

It was also part of the deal. As I saw it, I took out a £10,000 loan (back when tuition fees were a third of what they are now) and, in exchange, I was given some time to piss about and a piece of paper that’d guarantee me a higher salary. It seemed like a fair deal.

This is why I struggled to get exercised about Rishi Sunak’s campaign vow to phase out degrees that don’t improve the “earning potential” of students. It was criticised for cheapening education and seeing degrees as purely transactional, and he was accused of misunderstanding the very purpose of university.

[See also: International students aren’t the problem, higher education is underfunded]

Still, I’m not sure he is the one who is out of touch. In the aftermath of Sunak’s comments it was lovely to hear from Oxford graduates whose many seminars on Hungarian weaving and medieval Normandy opened their eyes to the world and made them more rounded. No, really, it was great to have to read the tweets and columns of so many of them, on the beauty of learning for learning’s sake.

It just felt like getting dispatches from an entirely different world. In the third year of my journalism degree, in 2012, I was the only student in a class discussion who was familiar with the Leveson Inquiry. If we really were young people learning for learning’s sake, it wasn’t going great.

There is also little point in treating higher education as something that happens in a vacuum. Though I am sure that writing weekly essays on goat herding in ancient Bolivia while at Cambridge gave you countless transferable skills, it is likely that the real career boost you got from it came from the word “Cambridge” being on your CV.

Then again, I do not believe that Sunak has it entirely right either. The point of university isn’t solely to turn young people into model employees, and we should not expect 18-year-olds to pick a narrow professional lane the moment they leave school. If companies want good new recruits, they should consider training them.

Instead, we need to reckon with the fact that, if around half of every generation is now to go to university, that experience can no longer be treated as monolithic. There can be no right or wrong answer to the question of “what should people go to university for?” – it has largely become something that people just do.

Of course, a debate should be had on whether we do want a society in which a majority of young people spend three years doing [fill in as applicable] in exchange for a hefty loan. Widening university access was arguably was one of New Labour’s most successful policies, but that does not mean it was an inherently good one.

For what it’s worth, I personally enjoyed my time at Westminster. Getting to spend three years doing little aside from growing up was a luxury I’d taken for granted – shows like Big Boys taught me to cherish it for what it was. Perhaps that is what university could be: three years to take a deep breath before plunging fully into real life. Couldn’t that be enough?

[See also: If Rishi Sunak cares so much about education, why won’t he fund it?]

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