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OPINION - Everything I need for work I learned on the job — my degree was a waste of cash

Does the ability to surf through an undergraduate degree really make you a better bet for employment than a school leaver? (PA Archive)
Does the ability to surf through an undergraduate degree really make you a better bet for employment than a school leaver? (PA Archive)

In my last job, £258 of every paycheque was syphoned off to the Student Loans Company. Now that I’ve gone freelance, I sometimes have palpitations about the chunk of money I’ll have to hand over to cover the debt come tax return time.

For my English literature degree, I spent three years devouring paperbacks and discussing similes, metaphors, motifs and the like. It looks like I’ll be paying for those three years for quite a while yet. I still have a mammoth £21,000 to clear, though the student loans man did point out that the debt will be wiped in 2035, when I’m 47 years old. For students enrolling at university this autumn, the loan won’t be wiped until 40 years has passed — meaning that many will be repaying the debt for the majority of their working lives.

When I think of the sum I still owe, I can’t help but wonder: was it worth it? And the answer, I fear, is no. In fact, when I think of the thousands of pounds that will stream out of my income to pay for those seminars analysing how Dickens depicted London in Great Expectations, I feel a little ill.

The late reporter Nick Tomalin once memorably opined that the only qualities required to succeed in journalism are “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”. I have yet to come across a better criteria for the job — and these skills can easily be picked up outside the hallowed halls of academia.

Would it not be fairer to adjust the criteria of many of those first ‘proper’ jobs to not require a degree?

Everything I need to know for my job I learnt while working at a press agency. It was hard work, not glamorous, I didn’t get bylines and the pay was atrocious — but it was the best training I could ever have received. I don’t think this is journalism-specific. Most careers, barring the obvious exceptions of medicine and law etc, are learnt on the job and not in the lecture hall.

And yet, university is still a requirement in so many fields of work. I do know that my degree, and my journalism masters (don’t get me started), secured my first “proper” job — but should it have? Did a degree make me more qualified for that job as a reporter? I don’t think so.

I just asked my colleague if he had gone to university. He seemed a little affronted by the question and assured me that he had. I asked him if he regretted it. He replied: “Of course not, how else could I have shimmied into the metropolitan elite?”

There’s truth in the joke. After all, it’s why people go to uni. Not to spend three years studying Pythagoras and his theorem or the writings of Freud, not even to signal to future employers that they have the tenacity to stick out three years in higher education. No, it’s because a degree offers membership to a club called “graduate” which vastly opens up the field of first jobs.

But does the ability to surf through an undergrad really make you a better bet for employment than a school leaver? Would it not be fairer — and certainly lighten the load of debt on the shoulders of the young — to adjust the criteria for many of those first “proper” jobs?

Looking back, I went to uni simply because it was the next step. It never occurred to me that I was making a massive financial commitment to hand over a significant portion of my salary for years to come. I suspect I was a particularly clueless 18-year-old, but I would wager that there are plenty of teens who, like me, are sleepwalking into degrees without considering the repayments.

Sienna Miller (Dave Benett)
Sienna Miller (Dave Benett)

Bumping off bump watch

Sienna Miller has been snapped on a beach in Ibiza looking annoyingly beautiful and very pregnant.

I found it refreshing that the online article I read made no reference to the actress’s obvious pregnancy and I suddenly realised that Miller, below, had not been subject to the usual “bump watch”.

As someone who came of age in the days of the dreaded “circle of shame” — a scribble on a magazine cover encircling some barely noticeable puckering on the thigh of a female celeb accompanied by a shrieking headline about cellulite — I remember bump watch. It was a regular feature in weekly mags and tabloid newspapers encouraging us to scrutinise a woman’s stomach.

Bump watch reached a fever pitch when Kate Moss was widely rumoured to be expecting (when she wasn’t), a pap flat-out asked her and she retorted angrily, “Do I look pregnant?”

I’m glad we’ve put the dubious practice behind us and treat female celebrities — and their bodies — with the respect and privacy that they should have received back then too.

Isolde Walters is a features writer and columnist