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To choose to be a student right now in the UK is to place yourself in a very precarious situation. You can go the university route, where high tuition fees will hopefully be offset by strong career prospects, or you can go the technical college route as a means of earning a vocational skill which will result in more practical and accessible work experience.
Alternatively, you can choose to study abroad for the sake of your resumé, you can study part-time and find part-time employment to avoid incurring massive student loans, or if all else fails then you can take a gap year from your studies and attempt to find significant work experience which will potentially guide you onto the right academic path at a later date.
However, do a little asking around and you will soon find that a lot of people at different ages in these various positions are struggling to answer the question of, ‘Is education, in this day and age, and in this economic climate, even worthwhile?’.
What it all comes down to is all the statistics you have heard before: fees are up, the job market has narrowed, those already in employment are putting off retirement by a few more years, and so as a result the next generation of professionals are cast somewhat adrift.
Danielle Lavery, 24, attended both Belfast Metropolitan College and University of Ulster, and had the following to say about the attitudes of the staff in each institution:
When it comes to Uni, I think they get paid for nothing … [College] is a different story. They are dying to help in any way possible. I would study there forever.
This comment about being ‘paid for nothing’ is an echo of a point raised by many in the past – do university students get their value for money? Even before the fee increase became an issue, the majority of undergraduates were paying over £3,000 per year in tuition for less than a dozen hours of taught class per week.
At postgraduate level, the fees are higher and the taught class hours per week are lower, a structure which by its very design is becoming increasingly unappealing to younger students just starting out in higher education. Charlotte Hart, 18, is in her first year at Manchester Metropolitan University and said:
Joys = Getting to choose what you learn about more so than in previous education, and getting to move away (some people). Pains = lack of money.
Thus, the financial problem persists. Universities may offer a range of clubs and societies, and some may be developing world-class facilities, such as Queen’s University Belfast’s (QUB) McClay Library, but if students are not being compelled to make the most of these then the focus again turns towards the tangible benefits which students are receiving in turn for their tuition fees.
To go from a first year undergraduate to a PhD student, Amanda Krentzel, 23, spoke of the challenges and responsibilities that come from the mere development of one’s academic career. Having finished her undergraduate degree less than a year ago, Krentzel now finds that:
Suddenly, in the eyes of undergrads, you’ve aged a decade.
This point brings to light the academic hierarchy which is not nearly as well-documented as the financial burdens of student life. Pursuing academia through all of its stages means finding yourself becoming a relatively senior figure before you have reached your mid-20s. That routine of simply going to class, doing assignments, complaining about exams, and partying in the student union?
That is forgotten very quickly as the ‘student’ becomes a more active participant in the university community. Now, add together the personal responsibility and the workload, as well as the financial challenges, and the full extent of the pressures of student life become more apparent.
All this, however, is not to downplay the fundamental love of education that many students, even those in dire financial straits, manage to maintain. Sarah McBride, 25, is a postgraduate student at QUB and explained:
I’m pro-education. I’m here for the love of learning, not just for the job prospects.
Therein may lie the reason why so many young people continue to apply to higher education courses when they are well aware of the complete lack of guarantees of finding jobs: a love of learning.
In a year where recent graduates have emigrated from Europe to the United States, and vice versa, there are still plenty who believe that the student experience is still an invaluable and ultimately fulfilling endeavour to pursue. Yet for those who have emigrated to pursue their studies, the reasons are equally persuasive. James Hughes, a QUB graduate, moved to Maastricht to do his MA, and lists his motivations for doing do as:
The cheap fees, the potential employment prospects and the international atmosphere of the student body. Chance to live in another country is appealing and, for Maastricht specifically, it’s a great central ‘hub’ for travelling.
For those who remain at home, it remains to be seen whether the joys of education will continue to outweigh the pains, as another year goes by with more graduates than ever fighting it out for that one, elusive, perfect dream job.