University of strife

THE SUMMER I left school – my university place secure, my future room in the halls of residence subsidised by a government grant – my friend and I resolved to find a job. It was an impulse decision we took while walking along a sun-kissed street in a heady post-exam haze. We didn’t scour the local newspaper for small ads, polish up our CVs or attend dozens of interviews. I’m embarrassed to say we didn’t even go home to change out of the shorts we’d been lolling about in. We just walked to the nearest diner and asked the owner if he’d take us on. And he said yes, right there and then. No third degree, no references, no nothing.

That was 1984; the country was just coming out of a recession which left three million unemployed, the miners’ strike was at its height, and, I guess, for many people times were tough. Yet for a studious, ambitious lower middle-class girl like me, life was replete with opportunities.

Compare that with the fortunes of similarly aspirant young people today. Pushed to work ever harder by helicopter parents and results- obsessed schools, they leave school with grades that would once have earned them a place at Oxford or Cambridge. But the drive to get more and more children into university, the scarcity of jobs and cuts in education funding mean more competition for fewer places.

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Choice of university is limited; few Scots can afford to opt for an English university where they would have to pay tuition fees. Indeed, such is the cost of student accommodation they are unlikely even to cross the Central Belt. And the bar for entry has been raised so high it’s surprising more don’t give up before they’ve started.

College places are more accessible, but they offer no special “in” on the workplace; many colleges are churning out students with HNDs in professions which are obscure or in decline.

But young people need to get into higher education because there’s so little else on offer. Figures on youth unemployment released last week showed the number of 18 to 24-year-olds claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance increased by more than 5,000 in July, a bigger rise than the previous two years, sparking more dire warnings of a “lost generation”.

Even Saturday jobs are hard to come by; many retail chains require candidates to complete tests containing questions you would need prior retail experience to answer.

Last week, while the University and College Admissions Service (Ucas) was struggling to cope with all the English students who – having received their A level results – were desperately trying to secure a place in advance of next year’s tuition fees hike, north of the Border schools found their numbers unexpectedly swelled by unsuccessful Scottish applicants with nowhere else to go. In some, as many as 25 per cent more pupils than anticipated returned to fifth and sixth year.

The situation is far from ideal, either for the pupils, who would rather be taking their first step on to the career ladder, or for the schools which need to focus on forcing the next round of academically able youngsters through the mincing machine.

They didn’t bow to parental pressure to get their heads down and forego parties in favour of revision just so they could claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. They didn’t join the debating society, do their Duke of Edinburgh Award, compete for the role of head girl or boy, so they could spend their days moping around in their bedrooms.

Last year, I observed with a growing sense of horror, the angst my friends and their children endured as they tried to cover every base in the pursuit of a university place, from crafting a personal statement to finding the perfect work placement. The days of doing things for the fun of them are long gone. Education is now entirely utilitarian; those who are learning to play an instrument are encouraged to sit the highest grade they are capable of early in fifth year so they can include it on their personal statement (it shows dedication). Getting involved in charitable work is a means of demonstrating your “social conscience”.

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With such bleak prospects, it would be no surprise if young people threw in the towel, or if parents decided cracking the whip was more trouble than it’s worth. But I suspect this year’s crisis will only serve to make the aspirational more competitive; more determined.

More pressure will be piled on young people until their lives seem to be little more than a succession of hoops, and however much they want to, their parents won’t dissuade them from jumping through from for fear they will left behind.

The summer I left school I worked so hard waiting tables I had blisters on my feet and a permanent headache. The Smiths’ I Was Looking For a Job And Then I Found A Job (And Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now) was in the charts and I kept a tally of every completed day like a prisoner in solitary. But I lived off my tips, saved my pay and had no fear of the future. Those were the days.

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