The trouble with University / by Peju Oshin


This piece was originally published on the London Designs A Girl blog on 23/07/14 and has been slightly adapted from its original form.

Towards the end of my first year of university, I quickly started to realise that many graduates would leave the confines of Higher Education and not be able to get a job. This was not because these individuals weren't academically brilliant, but simply because their social skills let them down marvellously and hindered them from applying theory learnt in academia to real-life situations. How I came to the above realisation as a student I don't know, But I knew I told no lies.

There's this thing called 'transferable skills', which I know, many 16-18 year-olds (likely including you as a reader) would have thrown into their UCAS statement when initially applying for university. I say initially because in this climate, it has now become a norm to rack up degrees with the same vigour of a grandmother keen on collecting victorian dolls, which she proudly and creepily displays in her living room. I myself, am not guilt-free when it comes to its use. However, in my application of the term, I was honest, in the sense that I looked at things from a wide angled lens. This was in contrast to some of my peers, who merely used the term as they deemed it to sound 'smart'. The latter marks the start of a process that many become accustomed to throughout their working lives, the art of shoe horning yourself into your potential employers desires, with a light sprinkle of industry buzz words.

It is perhaps useful to break down the meaning of transferable skills. It is generally seen as:

'Taking knowledge and skills out of their indigenous context and applying them appropriately to foreign situations'.

The above is what a lot of new graduates fail to do. Graduates are gently shoved and in some cases catapulted into the professional working world with little or no understanding of what the industry they hope to get into is truly like. This transitional [or lack of] period has seen media calling into question the resilience of sways of graduates leaving their respective institutions which opens up wider conversations about the value of education.

As a graduate a few years back and a then 'newbie' designer, it was drilled into us the value in gaining experience through summer internships and a-like. However, what was not discussed was the socio-economic imbalance that would eventually become glaring obvious for some of the cohort. London  is seen as a mecca for the arts and creative industry, the whole world flocks to the capital increasing the levels of competition faced by those looking for that crack in the door that enables them to wedge their doc marten or whatever other standard art school student shoe through the door. Students have to search high and low for opportunities where they can work alongside or under the direction of the practitioners they have idolised, read about in text books and cited. When these supposed entry level opportunities finally become available, many of them they may request for a minimum of 2 years experience which will only have been gained by those who were able to take up summers of unpaid work and have the ability disguise their lack of experience through language and social cues picked up in these environments further re-enforcing social devisions and who gets to work in the creative industries.

In making numerous job applications, I'm sure something along the lines 'How about I sit at home for two years seeing as I can't get a foot in and you just give me a job anyway?' has passed through the minds of many. Unfortunately, many become engulfed in a terrible and cyclical process of needing experience to get experience, but the doors being closed. *queue the mass of rolling eyes and acknowledging sighs*

As a student, I was unsuccessful in my quest to find an internship/work experience whilst studying. However, just a few weeks prior to donning my cap and gown, I was able to secure an internship (unpaid). At the time, I described myself as being 'lucky', but it was absolutely a lot of work doing a full-time internship whilst working a part-time job so I could actually get paid. During my time with this company, I attended my first 'big' industry event hosted by the BCFA where myself and a colleague engaged in a particularly interesting conversation with one of the suppliers. The conversation centred around whether or not a university education needs 3 years. We all came to the conclusion that degree courses could potentially be condensed into two years amongst other things.

On entering university, most people spend the first year faffing about and in some cases being a bit of k**b, either drinking excessively, not attending lectures or just getting used to not living at home. As second year rolls around, some spend half the year doing the same until they have a 'light bulb' moment, remembering that the marks gained that year will contribute to their overall degree classification. By this time the irreparable damage may have already been done. By the time third year hits, everything seems to pretty much go from 0 to 150 within the blink of an eye and you kind of just have to deal with it. The latter may sound harsh and again calls into question levels of resilience and the mechanisms put into place to support students.

Since the late 90's, University has been turned into an aspirational and almost mandatory part of 'adulting' in the UK. I do believe that university offers many great social experiences, including the age-old cliche of 'discovering who you are' with an acknowledgement that it can be an incredibly anxiety filled and stress inducing period.  HE institutions pride themselves on their rankings within the Guardian's good university guide, but course-leaders, associate lecturers, tutors and anyone else who has a stake in the direction of of education really need to pause and re-evaluate their pedagogies. How many of your staff are currently working in industry? How are you future proofing your course and your students? What steps are you taking to introduce new ways of working and developing personal practice?

When looking at education, we all have a role to play. We desire to create and become 'well rounded citizen' who can actively participate in society solving issues as they come up, however, more must be done to create equity. The reality is that university is a bubble and once you return your gown and hat to the supplier after your ceremony it somehow all pops at once.