Milly is a PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Birmingham. She shares her thoughts on how much the system has changed since she finished her undergraduate degree only two years ago.
When I first tell someone that I’m studying for a PhD, their initial question is to ask what it is about. Once I have bored said individual with incoherent jargon and muddled arguments, they usually ask me what I “plan to do next.” To this, I always find myself using the same answer; I have absolutely no idea but that this is OK. This response is completely honest – I cannot currently how I am going to turn my vast collection of books, journals and newspaper cuttings piled up on my desk into a cohesive and persuasive piece of work. Thus, it is difficult to try to peer through the black smog of the next two years of my studies and into my desired career choice. Likewise, it is not only the weight of workload that is keeping me from looking “past the PhD”, but also a desire to focus on the quality of the work that I am doing now rather than panicking about what I am doing later.
Despite wholeheartedly agreeing with the mantra of “slow-streaming”, I recognise that this is becoming less of an option for current students. I am incredibly lucky to be armed with two years of funding so that I can afford the luxury of saving money whilst focusing on my research and writing. As someone with minimal practical skills and even less common sense (it took me 10 times to pass my driving test and then I crashed on the first day…), academia has been my saving grace. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I heeded my Dad’s words to “stick with what you know” and applied for every scholarship under the sun until I was accepted onto my PhD. However, the relentless marketization of higher education means that students who could find their niche in academia are being forced to view their studies as a “stepping stone” to the cutthroat arena of the jobs market. With the (soon to rise) £9,000 per year student fees, universities have created a generation of panicked students with the constant hum of debt dictating their every decision. Not only does this have a negative impact upon the student’s experience, but also for the lecturers – they are now expected to balance tight research deadlines with managing up to 1,000 student “customers” who feel that their lives have ended because they were given a 58 grade instead of a 62.
Thus, rather than attempting to open their minds and explore different worldviews – a process that I believe is beneficial to society as well as the individual - being a student in 2016 is about “going through the motions” of a “checklist” for job applications. For example, many of the undergraduate students that I teach are obsessed with the idea of getting a first class degree whilst balancing internships, societies and part-time work – all for the benefit of being accepted onto a fast-track scheme into work straight after graduation. When I questioned one of my best students as to whether they would be interested in continuing into post-graduate education, they looked at me with horror and said “I’m already in way too much debt.”
I find it sad and deeply troubling that students with potential and passion to go far in academia will be held back because of a lack of funding. The constant pressure to get their undergraduate degree “out the way” so that they can start paying off their monstrous loans is immense and means that they do not have the time to really think about what they want to do – or where they want to go - “next”. In this sense, those in power who benefited from free education have pulled the ladder up behind them to leave the students of today scrambling over one another for opportunities. Our ability to take our time to learn and to contribute something of substance to higher education should not be a luxury. It should be based upon our talent and thirst for knowledge, rather than our ability to pay endless fees. Consequently, whilst I feel very lucky to not be caught up in the tide of fear surrounding post-graduation, I worry about the impact upon society of a nation of students who are told that education is something that can be “bought” in order to rush into the next stages of life.