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Why your degree is worth so much more than employability

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Even though many students go to university with the specific end goal of becoming more employable, that isn't the only way in which university improves students.

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On 24 July 2018, I graduated from King’s College London, with a decent 2:1.

At that point, I had spent almost 3 years away from my home country, Singapore and made life-changing friends from all over the world.

I had also become passionately involved in the student movement, being elected Vice-President Welfare and Community at my Students’ Union, extending my stay at King’s for a year. (This article is my opinion, and does not represent the views of KCLSU.)

As I walked on stage to receive my “degree”, which was actually just a scroll with a letter from the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, it didn’t feel as significant as I’d thought it would.

It felt, somehow, anti-climactic.

For many students, however, graduation is both a time of celebration and a time of great uncertainty; It’s their first step into the “grown-up world”.

It’s time to find a job, join the rat race, and try to pay off the almost £51,000 in debt the average student picks up during their time at university.

With costs rising and universities expanding, some question the value of a degree.

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has proposed a MoneySuperMarket-style comparison platform, which would let students see if their degree would be “worth it”.

The platform would include graduate salaries and employment data, alongside other information.

Based on a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, it appears that certain courses, and certain universities, produce “better” graduate outcomes with graduates from those courses or universities earning more their peers.

So far Minister Sam looks like he might be right, but there’s a catch.

As the IFS’s researchers point out at every opportunity, graduate salary outcomes reflect the decisions students and employers make, not the quality of their degrees.

Students with better social and emotional skills, or a preference for certain higher-paying careers, may choose to take a certain subject or go to a certain university.

Better-paying employers, on the other hand, might choose to hire or promote one graduate over another graduate of equal skill, simply because of the reputation of the university they went to. Such unmeasurable factors mean that how much graduates earn, and how likely they are to be employed, are irrelevant to the actual quality of a university or a degree.

Judging the quality of an education on graduate outcomes, then, is basically lying to the unfortunate students who have to use this platform.

However, even if the data did reflect these unmeasurable factors, measuring the value of a degree by its financial benefits is still problematic.

Arts and humanities degrees like Philosophy or History might not be the most employable or highest-paying degrees. However, the experience of studying a degree is valuable by itself; education develops a student as a person, and not just as a worker for the job market.

This is something that can’t be measured in numbers alone.

At the same time, students and politicians are right to be concerned about value for money with around three-quarters of students never paying off their student loans in full, despite making payments well into their 50s.

That’s a huge write-off.

International students, like me, don’t even have the dubious luxury of these loans as we pay all our fees for each year up front and in full.

Even if the government were to declare higher education a right, eliminate tuition fees, and wipe out student debt, the money to pay academics, run student services, fund student unions and do everything else a university has to do would still need to come from somewhere.

What, then, is the value of an education? I believe the value of an education is the value of the experience of education – in other words, the student experience.

The value of the student experience comes from what we’ve learned, what we’ve done, and who we’ve become, in our time at university.

While what counts as a good student experience differs for everyone, this can be summarised in 3 questions.

Firstly, have we learned what we wanted to learn at university?

To some students, this might just mean skills which would be valuable in the workplace while to others, it could mean much more; have we learned more about ourselves, more about relationships, perhaps more about the world?

Secondly, have we done what we wanted to do during our time at university?

Some students might treat their university years as an extended vacation, a final opportunity to have fun and forge friendships before they enter the working world while others might devote themselves to expanding their knowledge in one particular area.

Others still, like me, might see our education as a gateway to making change. Many politicians and campaigners started off as student activists and used the opportunities they had to develop their networks and formulate their big ideas.

All these are valid things to want, and they are things that a university education can provide.

Finally, have we become who we wanted to become at university?

This question partly combines the previous two, but is more than the sum of its parts just as we are more than the sum of our knowledge and achievements.

If university has made us better people, by our own standards, then we can answer “yes” to this question.

If you can answer “yes” to all 3 of these questions when you graduate, your education has been worth it and thankfully I know I can.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true for everyone.

Universities being run like businesses is part of this problem as is the fact that universities, like other institutions, inevitably reflect the discrimination that is everywhere in society.

Students are held back throughout their time at university in various ways.

An escalating mental health crisis is literally killing students while Racism, a BME attainment gap (which means students of colour do worse than white students), and an immigration policy which targets international students means many students don’t feel welcomed on campus.

Punishing expenses, including the high cost of accommodation, force students to sacrifice time, grades, and social and educational opportunities just to earn enough to survive.

It’s not just current university students who should care about the value of higher education.

Graduates, students and even people who’ve never been to university are all in this together because, one way or another, we’ll be paying for it.

As graduates, though, we are in a privileged position. Our time at university has given most of us a shortcut to the knowledge, skills and personal development we need to make change.

It’s not just our job to fix it, and it shouldn’t be, but if universities are part of the problem we definitely ought to be part of the solution.

Image: flickr

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