ONE 10 • Four Year Stretch

Four-Year Stretch: Reflections of a 21st Century Graduate
–Peter Simpson

You may ask yourself, ‘How do I work this?’…
You may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway lead to?’…
And you may ask yourself ‘My God, what have I done?’

—Talking Heads, 1981

By the time you read this, I will be a man. No surgery was required, nor were any religious affirmations. Not even a ‘Mazel Tov’. Instead, my manhood was granted by a sheet of paper, a ceremonial handshake with an ageing businessman, and a gown that could provide the basis for an up-market comic book superhero. The pomp and ceremony of the university graduation is interesting to say the least, and it seems to fit the mindset of the graduate perfectly, in that it is full of doubts over who does what, and a sense of foreboding over what might happen next.

The doubts begin at the final deadline, or exam. Once the panic fades, the realisation that the studying is over sinks in. Having dedicated four years to one subject, with all of your work directed towards a single goal, reaching the end is something of an anti-climax. You hand in a sheet of paper, or portfolio, and that’s it. No balloons fall from the sky, no fireworks suddenly soar off into the night to spell out messages of congratulations in smoke trails. My final piece of university work was dropped into a damp, converted post-box on a rainy Friday morning, which is not exactly the dramatic denouement to a career I’d envisaged.

Still, your academic career is over, the final chapter written — you are finished. At first, there’s a mild sense of euphoria, of real accomplishment, where you feel as though you should jump into the air and strike a victorious pose while some ’80s college rock plays in the background. After all, you are a ‘man’ now, and no longer must your work be patronisingly prefixed with words such as ‘student’ or ‘trainee’. The training wheels are off. It’s grown-up time. But as the days and weeks pass, something begins to nag away in the corner of your mind. Four years of university, and now what? A new chapter begins, but what, exactly, is it that you’re supposed to do?

Allow me to give a little context. Students, especially those coming straight from school, are conditioned to operate in a certain way, and to accept a particular routine. That routine goes something like this: get up in the morning, go to a building where several old people impart their knowledge unto you, lunch, more knowledge, leisure time, a little homework, a little more leisure time, bed, repeat. It is a framework designed for the tenure of school and university, where students are essentially guaranteed to be in a certain place for a set length of time without the option or desire to leave midway through their studies.

Certain notions become ingrained in the psyche: there will always be someone older and wiser who is in charge, tasks will be clearly defined and separated from one another, your work will always be examined and graded by a higher power according to various pre-disclosed criteria. It is simultaneously restrictive and liberating – the agenda happily be provided for you. A state of mind that rewards obedience, and the ability to follow orders correctly. It punishes those who cannot or will not jump through the hoops laid out before them. It is, however, a state of mind that leaves its students under-prepared for the world of work, and for reality in general.

On second thoughts, under-prepared is not the right word; it’s miss-prepared. On the outside, the student may end up being the old and wise one, in charge of a situation or team, or dealt a complex task which requires critical thinking and tactical leadership. Where is the leadership going to come from, if the student has taken orders for years? While educators engage in dry runs of these skills through projects and group work, the attributes required to be a success in the real world are often lacking in undergraduate education.

A senior academic at what is now my alma mater was quoted in a national newspaper recently, saying that entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and the ability to solve complex problems were just the kind of skills needed to make it big in the world, and these skills were all taught in postgraduate study. Undergraduates, apparently, don’t need to know how to solve a problem. Academic study is all well and good, but if it’s all that is involved in education, it can be tough to see how knowledge can be applied outside of the routine through which it has been delivered.

If the difficulties in escaping the student mindset sound tricky, the apparent dearth of opportunities on the outside is another issue entirely. Imagine being told that locking yourself in a room for a period and building your skills was the best way to make your way up the career ladder, only to come out of the room to find the ladder on fire. That is the 21st-century graduate’s predicament. Having studied in order to give themselves a boost on the ladder, some of those on the outside, through greed and stupidity, have ruined the thing. Effectively, the problem is one of supply and demand. The global economic meltdown has cost jobs, and led to cutbacks in recruitment, particularly among graduate-level positions. Government announcements that civil service roles won’t be filled when their incumbents leave add to the problem that there are just not that many jobs available. Yet, economics moves in cycles, and new wealth will eventually be created, the economy revived and restored to something approaching normality. So where’s the problem? It is on the demand side, as there are frankly too many people looking for work, and they cannot just be tidied away in a corner or made to disappear by the flick of a banker’s pen.

Well-intentioned initiatives to increase student numbers and the diversity of the university population, as well as changes to the fees system on both sides of the border, have seen admissions to higher education institutions rocket to the point where universities are full-to-bursting. This is undoubtedly a good thing, and it is hard to argue against young people from all backgrounds having the chance to study and further their education. Yet there is an unintended consequence of this drive for increased numbers of students in higher education, and that is the creation of a backlog of unemployed or under-utilised graduates. A friend recently applied for a graduate job at a national location. He was placed on a long-list of three-hundred and forty from the “thousands” of applicants, many of whom were back for a second, third, or fourth attempt to get on the career ladder. He did not get the job.
With so many people, all of roughly equivalent training and experience, looking to avail themselves of the same opportunities, a curious race to the bottom ensues. Well-trained and intelligent young people, desperate to make their mark, undercut each other’s labour to the point where they are happy to work for nothing. Not to help out in exchange for a reference, but to work full-time jobs for no payment. Once one graduate cracks and offers their services gratis, simple economics take over, and anyone who expects to be paid for their work is in for a shock. As an employer, why pay for labour when some are happy to give it away?

The growing acceptance of, and in some cases requirement for, payment-free work from graduates on their arrival in the ‘real world’ is a dangerous phenomenon. Firstly, it restores the class and status barriers that changes to higher education were supposed to remove. If the only way of breaking into a particular field is to work for nothing, then only those who can afford to do so will be able to break into that field. The acceptance of the notion of unpaid work also makes employers, observers, and young people themselves’ feel that their time studying is of no value, that it is worthless without offering patronage to a manager or executive. The inference is that a four-year university education, on top of any previous study, qualifies the graduate to be considered for the role of unpaid serf. Mazel Tov, indeed.

The ‘graduate internship’ is at best exploitation and at worst a form of economic and professional extortion. This is no simple quid pro quo where both sides are being equally burdened and rewarded, where payment-in-kind through publication of work, or display in a gallery is offered. The most insidious internships, often found in areas such as the media and the arts, place the burden almost entirely on the intern, with many structured and advertised as paid jobs sans the pay. Roles are defined. Set hours required and targets set, but no money changes hands. Often this kind of exploitation is alluded to under the euphemism of ‘paying your dues’, with the suggestion that it is good for graduates to go through certain rites of passage as they will gain the respect of their bosses. Either that, or the bosses will just find someone else to work for nothing once they start asking for money. After all, it doesn’t cost an employer anything to bring in a fresh-faced youngster, find them a chair and get them to reorganise the filing cabinets, and with so many faces to choose from the only danger is running out of chairs. There is no risk involved for an employer, and they can try out as many of these youngsters as they like until they find the one that suits them just right.

Having painted a bleak picture so far, you could draw the conclusion that the last four years were wasted, with so many problems ahead. Well, no. In fact, it is a tribute to the university system that I have been able to poke holes in and discuss the limitations of my education. If anything, it shows that university worked too well.

Yes, organised education, as with most structures, which include senior figures ruling directly over their members, creates a certain closed-mindedness in its students. But unlike other tightly policed organisations, universities fence in their students in order for them to tear down the fence at a later date. Through the level of study and development that a student undergoes, the flaws in the systems that govern us are illuminated and set in the sights of graduates. I would not have been able to write this article, with its mildly hysterical analysis of how bad things will be for this year’s graduates, without the years of study that have allowed me to comprehend the topics involved and the ways in which they interact/

Universities don’t fully prepare their students for the outside world, but arguably do something better – they expose the world’s flaws at close range, and allow solutions to grow and germinate. The life experience gained by students, the frequent requirements for intellectual rigour in their work, and the improved communication skills that come from articulating their ideas on a regular basis combine to provide the potential for great ideas. The leaders of tomorrow may be coming out of university today, seeing young people exploited or faced with a lack of opportunities, and go on to do something about it.

For this year’s graduates, that is the goal. It is the end of a personal era, and freedom from the education system is upon us. We have used up our thinking time, and must put our ideas and skills to use. The real world is tough, yes, but it’s tough for everyone. If young people feel the world is unfair, or can be made better, then now is their chance to use their knowledge, to make their ideas heard, and to make a difference to the world they have watched from the sidelines to this point. This crop of graduates may find themselves in other parts of the world, or in beautiful houses, or behind the wheels of large automobiles. When they ask themselves how they got there, their time in the intellectual bunker of university will surely get a mention.

Peter Simpson is a regular ONE contributor, and is available for work.

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