A Degree Of Value

I’ve mentioned in several blog posts I have attended universities in both Durham and St. Andrews. It is therefore reasonably clear that I have a degree-level education. It may have taken me five years to get a bachelors, but I do have one. I will probably mention later how and why it was such a struggle but for now, just take it as read that I have a degree, and that I sometimes worked hard to get it.

I’ve also mentioned on a number of occasions that I have a real job. It’s what is termed in the media a “graduate job”, even though I worked my way up from the bottom. The job I have now is arguably the same one I started over a decade ago, packaging up reports for clients, and watching the owner of the company run the analysis, but the level of responsibility has changed dramatically over the years. I have adapted to fit that.

That, to my mind, is a relatively common story. When I started this job it wasn’t a graduate job by any stretch of the imagination, and the salary reflected that. Then, as my experience developed, I took on more and more responsibility, like a journeyman learning a trade. Eventually the old boss left, and I became the new boss. And such is the way the world works; it is as old as time itself.

A university education does not / will not / can not imbue you with life lessons. None whatsoever: that’s not what it’s there for. A university is there for academic degrees and doffing you on the head.

Life lessons are the things you pick up along the way: managing your life (paying your bills, keeping yourself fed, managing your own schedule without the helping hands of school and parents, not getting arrested, learning to separate that which is important from that which very much isn’t) is a far more important set of skills to pick up than learning how to derive an eigenvector. Genuinely.

The value of a degree is not the job prospects you will magically have access to; it is not the huge piles of cash you will automatically earn; it is not how much better you will do throughout the rest of your life than your non-graduate peers: it is the life lessons which you will acquire along the way. That was the big lesson which life as a non-working graduate taught me. It was tough to swallow.

If we’re going to truly get our heads around what education does, or is worth, we need to separate the ideas of education being a positive thing, and education leading to strong financial rewards.

I spent many years struggling to find my way in to a graduate job, and failing. It led to massive bouts of depression and self-doubt, but it worked out in the end. The problem was that my mind-set was out of kilter with the way the world worked. The problem was that my ambitions did not match the reality of the job market. The problem was that I expected a degree to help me get a good job.

I raged at the world around me, screaming that there should be a golden path leading from my graduation right to the wonderful job, wonderful life, sunlit uplands which I was sure I had been assured I was owed after years of slogging. What I hadn’t realised – and the ones who do are all the healthier for it – was that the slog was the reward for completing the cushy existence of education.

The world of work, that endless treadmill of waking up to a world of enduring ordure, is the reward. But you have to start at the bottom. At best, an education will lift you up high enough to stop getting your feet wet, but that just puts you in with people who worked hard to get there. Only when you have enough experience under your belt will you ever be taken seriously. And perhaps not then.

I had a job all the way through university, and I could argue that I learned more from that than I did in the lecture theatre. That’s a glib way of looking at it, but there is a degree of truth there. Learning how to hold down a job over the course of a few years; learning how not to have your zero hours contract enacted to the letter – as so many of my contemporaries endured – and learning how to juggle the responsibilities of split shifts and lectures on semigroups. These were lessons in adulting.

It almost feels like we need to relearn the laws of cause and effect; as if we need to place less of an emphasis on the effect, and more on the cause. It almost feels like we need to focus less on the end of the road, and more on the experience of travelling down it. But that’s not how the mind works.

The best schools in the world serve their wealthy progeny well, not by having the best of the best teachers, and the best of the best facilities – although both could be argued – but by offering pupil-led activities. These are soft skills, where the pupils learn to lead the way, plan what they want, and then to go and get it. University works on a similar principle, but no one tells you that it’s doing so.

I started at university, in Durham, as a fresh faced 18 year old in 1999. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was not qualified for the course I was signed up to. I struggled, and I stressed, and I thought it mattered. It did not. University is a place where you can fail, and your mortgage is not at risk. Unless you’re a mature student. It is an inbuilt safety net, and you are expected to try things out. It’s true.

Some people experiment with clothes, with sexuality or with fashion. I experimented with putting in as little effort as possible, and developing a taste for tequila. Life lesson learnt: don’t drink too much, but do work harder. I was kicked out of one university, and instantly welcomed in to the arms of another. Another older, grander, better university. One which was a much better fit for who I am.

Life lesson learnt: you fit in better in some places than in others, and that’s OK. Capitals intended. If I had spent less time feeling like the worst human being in the world while at university, and more time working, I would have achieved a better class of degree. However, I also feel that I would have achieved less well in difficult working conditions than I have. That’s where university really pays off.