There Has To Be Something More: Is Getting A Job The Sole Purpose Of College?

by Morwenna Jones

James Gray is 19 years old. He comes from a family of financiers, and when he graduates, he wants to join the world of stocks, shares and bonds like his father and grandfather before him.

For that very reason, he is studying for a BA in accounting because, as written in The Guardian newspaper's "Guide to Clearing 2014," it seemed like a good path into his desired area of employment.

He's not alone in his forward thinking. Currently, 82 percent of graduates want their majors to relate to their future field of work, and three out of four graduates check employability rates of a course before even applying.

These students want to be one of the three out of four graduates with a job after leaving university, knowing that they won't regret the thousands of dollars worth of debt they accumulated over four short years. These students also definitely don't want to study English literature -- I can tell you that much.

With the enticing employment rates attached to vocational courses, like nursing or hotel management (98 percent in the case of nursing), and appealing starting salaries, it's fair to say that these courses are a safe bet if you want to avoid a lifetime of debt.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that those positions are so oversubscribed that frequently, only one in 10 applicants will secure a place.

More and more students are applying for vocational degrees, and the purpose of attending university is changing.

For today's applicants, entering the previously academic world of higher education is becoming a means to an end: a surefire way to make £115,000 more in a lifetime than you would have otherwise (that's almost $200,000 in US dollars).

In the case of the UK, throw into the mix the plans of former Higher Education Minister David Willetts, and you have a problem. The balding politician is considering plans for universities to be able to buy their students' loans and is thus considering the option of universities shouldering the burden of loan repayment in the place of the taxpayer.

He's even considering that fees at universities with highly competitive academic teaching programs might have to rise to £16,000. It's all very thoughtful of him. Only, he hasn't considered the impact this could have on learning itself.

According to a Vignoles and Shepherd study (which details which universities and courses have the best loan repayment rates), Willets is encouraging students already frightened of unemployment to actively use this information to decide where and what to study.

Equally, the "considered" proposals mean universities are also going to be frightened by the prospect of students of the arts and humanities pursuing their artistic dreams in less well-paid careers.

If the proposals became reality, it would only make sense for universities, sixth-form colleges and schools alike to join together and divert students and resources into scientific or vocational degrees with better employment rates and, consequently, better returns for them.

They're likely to do this anyway this year as they attempt to attract the extra 30,000 students with grades of ABB or better for whom the government has opened the doors to higher education.

Paving the way for the cap on the number of students to be removed completely in 2015, this latest reform has made universities keener than ever to draw in students and the £9,000 tuition fees they bring with them.

Institutions are rolling out the red carpet with everything from free gym membership and iPads to entirely new campuses worth hundreds of millions of pounds. But more than anything else, they're sending students the message: Come here, study here and work towards that job you've always wanted that our exemplary employment rates give you.

As far as I can see, it's a bleak, pathetic, sad message, and not just because no one should have to spend three or more years of their life working doggedly towards the sole aim of getting a job they spontaneously decided they wanted at the age of 18.

For me, it jars with the message I was given on my first day at university. While sitting in the cramped, book-filled study of the eccentric Shakespeare professor, I was told, "You're here to read, to learn and to expand your mind. I hope you don't see studying English literature as a stepping stone to some sort of career."

I wanted to be a barrister (wealth and employment relatively guaranteed). Two years on, I want to be a writer (bugger). My end goal has changed drastically and it's because I at least tried to do what my supervisor told me I was there to do. I read, I learned and I expanded my mind.

In doing so I realized that I don't want to spend my post-academic life wearing a wig, sitting in court or learning endless, endless amounts of dull facts.

Rather, I want to continue reading, continue learning and I want to continue expanding my mind about everything and anything that interests me, no matter how irrelevant it may be to my day-to-day life.

Granted, this isn't the case for everyone. Not everyone is suited to academia and a plenty of students are studying for vocational degrees because the courses inspire them.

Nevertheless, this growing preoccupation with employment-focused education is still bringing us dangerously close to the territory of "useful learning."

It's a phrase I can remember my Latin teacher stating in one of her (many) angry rants about the state of the modern world. "It's a ridiculous concept," she said:

You should learn whatever you bloody well want and really educate yourself rather than spending your entire student life jumping through bloody curriculum-prescribed hoops!

As an A-level student for whom jumping through hoops was my main purpose in life, I was horrified.

She proceeded to teach us about a Latin love poem. I can't remember the poet, but I can remember the lines:

Whatever she does Whatever she wears Whatever she wears My beloved looks beautiful.

Three years later, I look back to that classroom. Even if I have forgotten the rest of the poem and the poet's name, her message is still clear: If you want to really educate yourself. -- if you want to really learn -- setting out with a distinct goal in mind isn't the way to do it. Otherwise, you only end up missing out.

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