Are we experiencing a university epidemic? And does it need to be brought under control?
This article needs to begin with a statement- it's a statement that we never read, and it's a statement no one ever actually says, and means. Here we go: students have it tough, really tough.
Cue middle-aged adults with 'proper jobs' gasping at this proposition, and rolling their eyes at how 'naive' us students all are. However, this statement should be an undisputed truth. It seems that university has now become a rite of passage for 17-year-olds in this country, with double the amount of people heading to university now than just 15 years ago. In 1994, there were 984,000 people at university and in 2016, there were just shy of 2 million people studying at universities up and down the country. Equal opportunities for all regardless of gender, class or race and an increase in access to higher education are both incredibly important improvements in society, but in allowing everyone and their dog the chance to head off to university, are we instead taking detrimental, monumental steps backwards as a country?
Going to university isn't a decision that should be taken on a whim, and promoting university as the 'only way forward' discounts a huge amount of young people who may feel that studying for another three years isn't exactly beneficial for them. We're still young; people may want to travel to explore the world, learn and grow first. There are certain jobs that don't require a degree in order to undertake them and apprenticeships are an incredible way for young people to get paid, hands-on experience in a sector that could land them in a job at the end of it. Not to mention the fact that a lot of creative industries prefer actual hands-on work experience over a degree; just because someone can work academically, that doesn't mean that they're able to undertake a role in a company efficiently. There is more to life than a degree, and at this age, it really feels like if you don't set foot in university, then you're a failure — and we shouldn't feel like this.
A massive implication that comes with heading to university is financial struggles. Student loans are based on parental income, so many parents find themselves funding their child throughout the degree — which is by no means cheap, even for families that could afford it. Even for students that come from lower-income backgrounds, the cost of living in a large city for three years, along with keeping up with social events and scrimping to pay for major course texts, without family to turn to if there's money trouble, is an extreme worry. Add into the mix the fact that the price of courses are rising extortionately by the year, and contact hours for students are getting slimmer, and it becomes clearer that we might just be having a university epidemic.
So we've addressed that everyone and their dog is going to university now, which means there are more people with exactly the same qualifications going for a limited number of jobs. We've also addressed that setting foot in university lands you in around £50,000 of debt. So imagine the joy of realising that the job market is incredibly limited and incredibly competitive now and that when you finish your degree, you're going to struggle to find employment. Millennials have even coined the term 'funemployment' in an attempt to laugh off the crappy situation we find ourselves in. A horror we all have to face now is the very real prospect that getting a job after university won't be simple or even kind of hard. It's going to be ridiculously tough — and the simple truth is, it shouldn't be like this for us.
As students, we're all very aware of our situation. We despair about debts, we worry about life after the bubble of university and we all try our very best to aim for that dream career we're striving towards. Basically, we're all stressed enough as it is. We spend sixth form having the word 'university' drummed into us enough times until we're forced to apply, whether we're unsure about it or not. Head to university, and the next thing that's drummed into us incessantly are the two dreaded words: 'work experience'. Statistics show that 58 percent of employers treat work experience as "the most popular qualification among those presented"- so what it boils down to is that having a good degree is just not going to make the cut anymore. You might come out of your Russell Group university with an outstanding first, but in the eyes of employers, that first just won't be outstanding enough. Everyone else applying for your prospective job will probably have done the same course, at a similar uni, and came out with similar grades. Millennials have to go above and beyond just to stand out marginally. Big businesses often have over 100 applicants for work experience opportunities; balancing a healthy lifestyle, mounting university work and sourcing work experience in very little 'free time' is incredibly tough; a large number of internships expect you to work without pay. Gaining a considerable amount of work experience whilst undertaking a degree becomes a near impossibility for a large number of students, and this is an incredibly stressful environment for students to attempt to 'thrive' in.
And this just leads to an unhappy student body. We're young and we're learning; these years are supposed to be relatively carefree. But the rise in mental health issues in students shows that the pressures, stress and worries of completing a degree and growing in this society are getting too much: a 2015 NUS survey showed that 78 percent of students dealt with mental health issues that year. And worryingly, 33 percent of those students had suicidal thoughts. We claim to be a society that's striving for equal opportunities for all and a society in which people can aim for whatever they want to achieve, but we're actually living in a country where striving for these ideals is crushing the wellbeing of so many people, and arguably making us feel worse off. As students, we all have equal opportunities to head to university, but uni seems to be promoted as the only route forward and once you're studying for a degree, we find ourselves with equal opportunities to be as stressed, as worried and as mentally unwell as each other. We're living in an age of a university epidemic, which is contributing towards a mental health epidemic and it's about time the rest of society started realising how tough life is for us students.
In an ideal world, universities would become more about selecting the best applicants to study at their institutions; instead, they've become businesses with the money-making agenda of getting in as many students as possible for maximum profit. We're left as mere numbers, desperately fighting to stand out. Something needs to change — and in the meantime, treat us students with a little more compassion: it's tough for us.