From education to employment

Forgotten graduates – the trouble with linking uni to success

Shane Chowen is vice president (FE) of the NUS, a confederation of 600 FE and higher students' unions

Getting your A-Level results is one of those days you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

I remember mine well. I was volunteering for a children’s charity in Cornwall at the time so had to get my Mum to call me when my results arrived in the post the day after all the hype. The scene was nothing short of picturesque. The sun was shining; I had beautiful Cornish scenery to look at and got more than my week’s recommended exercise amount running around trying to find a phone signal. But I was one of those “if you didn’t get the grades you wanted” people, having to watch Jimmy on BBC News opening his envelope and being overjoyed with his 4 A grades with his beaming parents coincidently also in camera shot. Over and over again.

Totally not bitter.

At this time of year it’s a given that people like me write blogs about how a-levels and GCSEs are not getting easier to remind everyone that the out of touch media are still just as out of touch and willing to disgracefully talk down young people as they were last year, and the year before and the year before.

But there are more serious issues this year keeping me up at night. More serious than sensationalist regurgitation of old news and copy and paste articles of inevitable drivel. The future. Mine, yours and everyone elses.

This isn’t just about places at university. It’s bigger than that too. It brings into question the very fabric of education, who it’s for and what it’s for. From a young age we’re told about how going to school will make you successful when you grow up. Then you reach secondary, where you’re told that if you do well at GCSEs you can go on to do A-Levels “which will get you into University”; and if you don’t do well … there’s always an apprenticeship. Then some of us go on to College or Sixth Form. Some take a BTEC, some will do some A-Levels “which will get you into University”. All of this is about opportunities to grow and gain the skills for a successful future, but it’s at this stage we run into a wall. By and large, this will be the first experience of having to compete to be educated and this year more young people than ever lost.

It angers me that we’ve been educated through a system with, what very much feels like, a single measure of success – that place at University. This “my success is your success” top-down method of motivating young people through education has now proven to be flawed. Society isn’t ready for an aspiring generation of graduates so becomes hostile – as we saw last week with the ridiculous, and in some cases offensive, advise from Ministers and “professionals”. Take a gap year, do some volunteering or an internship, get some work experience. All of the above require a level of support which individuals and their families both didn’t plan for nor are even in a position to deliver. That aside, this is society yet again rolling out the red carpet of opportunity for those who, comparatively, already have it. If you’re in a financial position to be able to spend a year on an unpaid internship go for it – add it to your UCAS personal statement – make yourself un-turn-away-able. As my Year 11 form tutor once said, “grab every opportunity to better yourself with both hands.”

My concern though lies with those who can’t who, arguably, want HE just as much as the next person but will be less likely to get there because of their financial background.

So it’s time for a new vision. A new education which takes an inclusive ‘slap-in-the-face-reality check’ look at what the mission of education. For me, education is not merely about a thriving economy, it’s about equipping individuals with the tools to be as successful in life as they can be. The two clearly go hand in hand, but the reality is clear, aspiration has overtaken opportunity – so things need to change.

I don’t share the view that there are too many graduates. I want to see more graduates. But I also want Graduate to mean something more, or different, or we lose it altogether.

By linking success with degrees, we’ve forgotten about the other graduates.

“Yes you can read a book and write an essay about it, but I can build a house.” “You want to make your mark by discovering something new – best of luck to you – I’ve off to run a business and employ some people. “

I want our education system to allow us to define our own success. But for that to work we need to stop herding people into pre-determined routes, but fully aware that all routes, vocational or academic comes with its own risks; they always have and they always will.

We need a career guidance system which sits outside of institutional and systematic control which works with and for individuals. We need a better understanding of the realities of further and higher education. That the average graduate premium of £100,000 over a lifetime is, according to a study by the University of Sheffield, the same as those with a level 3 apprenticeship – the Apprentice Premium if you will. Let’s engrain work experience in the curriculum, and re-launch work based learning so it is no longer something for “other people’s children”. Let’s do more to celebrate the achievements of those who have faced significant barriers to reach their success and further inspire others, blowing open a new world of education with equality at its heart.

We often refer to education as being “a journey”.

Is this a journey exclusive to my generation? Yes. My generation is one that has been given the opportunities that our parents didn’t have, one that has been encouraged to go further and be the best we can be. It says a lot about a generation who, in the most difficult of economic environments placing massive strains on individuals and families, are still getting better results and fighting for our futures.

This is why we can’t underestimate the damage that already is, and will be caused by cutting investment in education. Let’s not lose sight of a vision for a fairer society, and take no lectures on “fairness, freedom and responsibility” from those seeking to restrict opportunity further.

We’re ready, are you?

Shane Chowen is vice president (FE) of the NUS, a confederation of 600 FE and higher students’ unions

Read other FE News articles by Shane Chowen:

Cuts announcement provokes mixed reaction from NUS

Bye Bye Bonuses

FE through the eyes of students

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