Despite efforts to make higher education more accessible, the system still leaves far too many behind, argues comment’s Estelle Dragan
In an age of growing competition, fast societal change and uncertainty about future jobs, undergraduates are increasingly being thrown into a deepening pool of academic average. A degree simply isn’t enough anymore to stand out on the steepening career ladder. Nowadays, it is all about embellishing yourself with the extras – the extra work experience, the extra volunteering, the extra contacts. Welcome to the epoch of the extra-curriculum vitae.
Not only are undergraduates having to complete swarms of essays and ticking off reading lists under strict deadlines, they are also having to meet the dreaded career deadline. The penultimate year of undergraduate study is a time of immense unease and stress for many. The transition from this sheltered university life to the ‘real world’ turns fellow course mates into fellow competitors.
The word ‘internship’ is an often ugly one for students. The pressure to gain invaluable work experience is huge. Without this, undergraduates often fall into a postgraduate void in which the practicalities of work are alien to them. The so-called transferable skills acquired in abundant essay writing and referencing simply don’t translate into the practical working day. In fact, during my last internship, the core skills needed such as basic use of excel had not been touched since the early years of secondary school.
Finding all of this experience doesn’t come easily nor free either. Internships are often not paid. Inevitably, many students simply cannot afford to spend weeks of their summer without an income. Travel expenses, accommodation costs and food funds are all factors to be considered by our overdraft-ridden student bank accounts. The privilege game doesn’t stop there either. With career success becoming less and less about what you know and more and more about who you know, many internships are set up through contacts.
Higher education, a supposedly fair system accessible to all regardless of income, still leaves many behind. Those who can afford to work for long periods of time unpaid are inevitably more likely to acquire the best experience, and thus the best jobs after graduation. Is the world really our oyster? I think not.