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September 23, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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A VUW From the Top

Impending graduation makes fleeing from the reality of Adult Life a much trickier exercise. How are some recent or soon-to-be Victoria graduates dealing with this, and how, in retrospect, do they feel about the whole thing?

 

It’s tricky to talk about the mixed feelings people have about university without dragging out the same battered talking points that get rehashed so frequently. We are, apparently, a cohort of unemployable, debt-ridden cadavers rotting in the cellar of our parents’ houses, and we are fated to be disastrously unhappy and unsatisfied with absolutely everything ever. What is clear is that attending university in this country (and, by proxy, the world) isn’t the universal wellspring of pride, security and hope that it once was. That said, for at least three years, the colossus of the quarter-life crisis can be fended off, largely, by the triumvirate of a steady (borrowed) income, alcohol, and essays on the imperialist worldview found in Avatar.

Unless, of course, you’re graduating. The effect of your imminently approaching life as a ‘real person’ isn’t, in that case, all that easily inoculable.

Reconciling years spent studying with a watery view of what the future might look like, and your own insecurities regarding the whole affair, can be hard for a number of reasons. One of these has to do with what brought you here in the first place. For many, what is actually a terribly important decision is made arbitrarily, in a feverish fugue where Criminology suddenly seems like a good idea for an 18-year-old high-school student. Three or four or five years later, you might find yourself harbouring the purest, most unadulterated of homicidal feelings for your teenaged self. Gabrielle, a fifth-year LLB/BA student, warns that “18 is far too young to commit to a five-year double-degree relationship, and we’re just not ready.” Conversely, the need to do something, whatever that is, has led some of us into investing time and money into areas of study that, by their very nature, don’t align all that well with what we actually might like to do. It’s a revolting admission, to be sure, but it’s one that is probably true of a large number of people, especially those toiling away in the humanities. In the case of Sam, a Theatre Honours student, “I didn’t know so much about… vocational training in my field of interest when I left high school.” Sam points out that students often wilfully have a slippery understanding of their course of study, and, as a result, are engaged in a sort of doublethink where they know that “you are engaged with the academic side of the field, [which] is what they are best equipped to provide us with,” while at the same time desiring a living based on more practical pursuits. After all, “…how many English majors secretly want to be writers or journalists, but aren’t taking anything [that involves those activities], like at the IIML?”

While this maudlin effect is more likely to stalk the lighting rig in the theatre than the halls of the Law School, where things are a little more plainly vocational, it has a certain kind of truth for a lot of graduates, I think. Sam says that a lecturer asked him one day why it was “that students approach the end of university with such an incredibly lacklustre, despondent attitude?” Tangentially to this, another soon-to-graduate Theatre student, Pippa, took to Facebook recently to tell university to “eat a bag of dicks” because she had found employment. Her friends were abundant in their digital approval (read: it got a buttload of likes). While the sentiment makes a certain amount of sense, taking employment as a sort of cause célèbre against the value of a university education is, on the face of it, bizarre. Pippa’s explanation is succinct: “I’ve started to really hate university.”

Ouch.

“In my first year, I realised uni wasn’t for me, but my parents have always wanted me to go, and I have a fear of disappointing them, so I decided to stick it out for a few years to make them happy.” And by the time she’d reach her third year: “I had picked up professional work within the industry, so really I saw uni as a fucking expensive networking system… only I haven’t made any useful contacts.” There is a schism here between what the University teaches and what, in this case, the student wanted. While you could make the claim that studying theatrical academia doesn’t promise anything in terms of working in its associated industry, Pippa says that “the reason I do so much [extramurally] is because my degree isn’t satisfying enough to make me feel any sense of achievement.”

This brings us to another thing that, in the face of so much ill-will, isn’t really questioned as much as it should be: reconciling the cost of university with the quality of what you’re getting. For many, apparently, Victoria hasn’t done all that well by them. Pippa says that while she is paying over $1000 for one course, she has “…no real access to rehearsal space.” Keegan, a third-year History, Political Science and International Relations student, says that when he asked why History tutorials last year would be conducted “online”, he was told that the “…department did not have enough money to [pay] tutors or put on a complete set of tutorials.” Online tutorials, for those who understandably have difficulty understanding the idea, consist of “responding to blog posts or answering online questions”. Keegan also says that “300-level tutorials [in Political Science and International Relations] have been scrapped to save money, which has been (in my opinion) to the detriment of the courses. Now lecturers have to try and facilitate discussion in a lecture theatre in a 200-person capacity room.”

Budget cuts are, of course, not within the realm of control for academic staff, but the whittling down of tertiary education to the bare minimum might go a long way to explaining why the whole thing can end up feeling so hollow for a lot of people.

As far as my own experience goes, my time has been divided between lecturers who plainly have no interest in teaching and structure courses around their as-yet unpublished papers and books, bored tutors who know they’re just as repulsively awful as we are, and the occasional lecturer who, you know, likes teaching.

That aside, university attendance, especially the BA, is supposed to equip you with more than just technical proficiency in a certain area. It is intended to instil certain values, and that make you a more engaged, well-rounded person. As Sam says, “I don’t think [my degree] equips students for jobs, but I also don’t think they ever promise to.” Well, then, what do they equip you with?

“They equip you… with those things they put in the course catalogue.” Ah. I see. What on earth does that mean? At the start of most courses, you are given a two- or three-page document that outlines “course learning objectives”. A glance at my most recent ones shows that, if I apply myself, I will have “an appreciation of the politics that led to the introduction of MMP,” be able to “ask provocative questions inspired by feminist thought,” and “understand better the human rights ‘project,’” all by the end of the year. Over the course of three years, this odd quilt of experience won’t necessarily prepare me for any one thing—rather, I should be a more intellectually rounded person better equipped to deal with whatever comes my way. University is about more than just vocational training. The Law Faculty, for instance, lists “sensitivity to gender, ethnic, cultural and other differences; awareness of the role of stereotypes and how they structure thought” on its rather succinct list of graduate attributes, and while that might make you a better lawyer, it will certainly make you a better person. In short, tertiary education is supposed to foster not only what you’re doing but how you’re doing it.

So, outside of job prospects, are students getting a sort of unquantifiable preparedness? Gabrielle’s response is blunt: “Prepared?! Are you kidding?” She grants that the non-uni-centric experiences of “…leaving home, flatting, managing life without Mum has been a great learning experience, and going on exchange has helped me become a more prepared adult,” but that “…the day-to-day running of uni has made me more cynical and, because I’m more educated about the world, more scared. I now know that there really are people my age who think that the ACT Party is a good idea and people who are racist [and] misogynistic. It’s terrifying being exposed to that!” Her other grievances aside, I’d counter that perhaps both of these things engender the same sort of learning. University has, at the very least, given Gabrielle a space in which to realise that some people are awful. That’s a lesson that everyone ought to learn, one way or another.

You can’t talk about university without talking without debt, and riddling young people with debt seems like a strange way to set them up for adult life. As Keegan says, “I think there are a lot of people… that are confused that they have to pay so much, and become so indebted before they have even started ‘adult life’. All respondents for this piece professed to have loans, and most were large. Some are more okay with this than others. Pippa, for instance, decried the whole thing as “a very expensive piece of paper that said an institution thinks I stuck it out long enough to get paid a decent salary.” A forlorn Keegan says that “I speak to people who are worried about how they will… [get] a mortgage. I already have a mortgage, it’s called my student loan.” It has to be said, though, that nobody (or at least very few) people totally stumble into a mountain of borrowed money. Obviously, we still think that something about a university education makes it all worthwhile.

Or, as Gabrielle, who says her degree is “a necessary investment,” puts it, “We are smarter, more fortunate and more in debt than we have ever been before.”

The time when your time at university finally draws to a close is a time when the accumulated detritus of your burgeoning adulthood can’t really be ignored anymore. Whether or not this is a good thing or not depends wholly on the how and why of why you are there in the first place. In the case of this limited sample, a degree seems to be viewed like a necessary evil—a ratification of your personhood, attained through education in the abstract and towering stacks of cash.

That probably won’t change anytime soon.

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