Why some graduates believe university was a waste of time (UK)

Holly Higgins asks what students’ reflections on the benefits of higher education can tell us about the relationship between HE and employment.

Public debate about the purpose and practice of higher educatation is currently dominated by a discourse of employability which privileges the financial rewards of achieving a HE qualification over the personal and social rewards associated with the experience itself. Critics of this discourse argue that attempts to isolate preparation for employment from other aspects of personal and social development are unhelpful because they fail to take into account the interrelationship between personal, educational and professional development.

In 2011 HECSU [Higher Education Careers Services Unit] conducted a survey in which graduates were invited to reflect on their experience of higher education. We found that graduates who believed their participation had contributed to their personal and professional development demonstrated an awareness of the broader purposes of HE, while those who perceived their education to be of little or no value were more likely to view university as a means to an end.

‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experiences and knowledge I gained from my time at university’

Graduates who believed that participating in HE had contributed to their personal development explained how studying for a degree helped them to develop confidence in their own ability, giving them the courage to volunteer and defend their own ideas, and challenge the opinions of others. They also felt that attending university had given them the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, people they might not otherwise have met, prompting them to reassess their priorities and think more critically about their own ideas and ambitions. Describing the social and intellectual rewards of HE, these graduates explained how the experience gave them confidence in their ability to make sense of new ideas and unfamiliar concepts, and understand, manage, and summarise complex information. They explained how studying for a degree taught them how to appraise other peoples’ work and apply their own knowledge, and their description of the way studying for a degree taught them to evaluate their skills and knowledge suggests that participating in HE also prompted them to adopt some of the behaviours associated with career self-management.

These graduates felt that achieving a degree demonstrated that a student had the intellectual ability to engage with, and understand, unfamiliar concepts and ideas. They were determined to achieve success within the labour market, and encouraged current students to make the most of opportunities to engage with academic knowledge, gain work experience, participate in extracurricular activities, and develop their social skills.

‘I do not feel my degree benefited me at all. I thought it was a waste of time’

While many graduates agreed that participating in HE contributed to their personal development, some argued that it was of little or no value because it had not enabled them to secure a particular kind of job. These graduates had struggled to find what they considered to be a “graduate” job and felt that universities were no better at equipping students with transferable skills than schools or colleges. They believed that achieving a degree demonstrated that a student had acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to perform a particular role, but were pessimistic about their chances of achieving success within the labour market, arguing that nepotism was rife and that they did not have the contacts to secure a job in their subject area. They felt many students would be better off pursuing professional or vocational qualifications that are designed to prepare them for employment, and wished they had done the same.

‘Don’t think it’s just about what employers want. University is a great opportunity to learn what you can do as an individual’

Students’ orientations towards higher education are important because they influence their understanding of, engagement with, and ambitions for academic learning, extracurricular activities, and employment. They also inform students’ understanding of the relationship between education and the wider world. Our preliminary findings suggest that the current discourse of employability is preventing some students from engaging in HE in a way which facilitates the personal and social development which will enable them to secure fulfilling employment and make a meaningful contribution to the economy. It is a timely reminder that universities and policy makers need to do more to remind students of the broader purposes of higher education if they want students to participate fully in university life.

This is an excerpt from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s spring edition of Graduate Market Trends. The full article can be viewed at hecsu.ac.uk.

Source: Guardian Education  http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/01/graduates-university-employability-waste-time