A Wasted Three Years?

23 Jun

When I was a child, I was given a tiny set of four books entitled – I think – How to be a Super Genius. They were basically a list of facts, with each book illustrated with pictures of someone being watched by admirers, ranging from their families to full audiences in theatres (or game shows). Unfortunately, being able to memorise so many facts (I didn’t) wouldn’t make someone a genius, but a know-it-all … if that.

One of the themes I meditated on in The Outcast was the value of education – in particular, the value of teaching students to think. A person with a critical mind can take facts and reason from them; a person without a critical mind can go no further than the facts. For example, to use a very simple math puzzle, one can be told that ‘x’ equals ‘5’ in ‘2x+5=15,’ – but without the background knowledge of how to break the equation down to ‘x=5’ one could not solve another equation. Knowing how something works can often be as important as knowing how to use it.

What brought on this chain of thought was the realisation, last night, that it has been ten years since I graduated from University. I won’t knock my time in Manchester. There were good times, I learned a great deal and had my mind broadened considerably. But I have grave doubts about the value of spending three years in university to emerge with a BA (HONS) in Library and Information Management … and very little else.

There was quite a bit about the course that interested me, I must admit. I actually enjoyed learning about censorship (upon which I wrote my dissertation) and other aspects of human society that might be of importance to the modern librarian. However, apart from the degree itself, the course failed to prepare me – and, by extension, my fellows – for working life.

What I discovered when I started applying for jobs was twofold;

-Jobs went to people with experience.

-I didn’t have any.

That isn’t entirely accurate, I will admit, but the work experience I had before university (and the official work experience I did in second year) was pathetic, certainly when compared to the experience of people who had been in the field for much longer. Even a very basic library job (shelving books) was difficult to get, no matter what fancy paper I had from the university.

This Catch-22 vicious cycle was summed up quite nicely by my former boss, who had a list of accomplishments and experience as long as my arm. “In order to get a job, I needed experience; in order to get experience, I needed a job.”

Not quite willing to give up and fall into dependency on welfare payments, I started trying to get that experience. This rapidly proved unfruitful; one volunteer place considered taking me, then changed their mind; several schools refused to allow me to work as unpaid labour so I could get experience … indeed, the only place that gave me semi-realistic experience was a charity shop. I found myself working in an old folks home for several months, an experience that was heartbreaking … and utterly irrelevant to my planned career. It was luck, more or less, that got me my first real (part-time) job in a library – and luck that helped me make the transition to full time.

The blunt truth, I discovered, was that very little I had been taught in university was actually important. We had been given a few brief weeks to study the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system, hardly enough to master it as a customer, let alone a librarian. Everything I found useful in my job could have been covered in a few weeks; in effect, I would have been capable of taking on the position at 18, rather than going to university. Nor do my qualifications translate well into other fields.

I took out student loans to study in England. For much of the time after I graduated, I simply didn’t earn enough to pay back any of the loan. Even when I was working full time, my repayment rates were very low. Frankly, if I was in charge of distributing loans, I would consider myself a very bad investment.

If it was just me, it would be one thing. But it isn’t just me.

A brief search on Google suggested that Britain graduated 333’000 students in 2012. How many of those students are going to walk straight into a job? I would be very surprised if even 1% of them were hired within the first year. The rest … will have to make do with terrible jobs, welfare payments and staying with mum and dad. Incidentally, those students will also be competing with people who didn’t go to university and immigrants to the UK for what unqualified jobs are available.

We look down on young adults – particularly men – who live with their parents, at least unless there’s a valid reason. It just isn’t cool (if nothing else, it can be awkward when one is trying to date.) But tell me … what sort of choice do they have? Moving into a flat/apartment (let alone a house) can be hideously expensive. If they’re not earning, there isn’t anywhere to go.

You think not? Even when I was working full time, I didn’t earn enough money to consider living alone.

This problem has unpleasant implications for Britain (and, I suspect, every other Western country).

-There will be an expanding population of university graduates who will have no prospect of finding a good job, certainly not one that satisfies their expectations. A large population of dissatisfied youths is a recipe for riot and revolution. As this grows larger, expect some to give up, some to turn to crime and some to turn to radicalism. Why not? They don’t even have chains to lose.

-Those student loans will never be repaid. A large chunk of money will eventually vanish, setting off a domino effect that might well damage the economy. (Quite apart from the government-supported (i.e. taxpayer-supported) loan system, there will be loan companies (and outright loan sharks) threatened by the collapse.

-There will need to be considerable enhancement of the welfare state to support young men and women who can’t find jobs. This will mean a cut in government services elsewhere, Failure to do this will cause chaos.

In short, the value of higher education in Britain has gone downhill. We need to take action to deal with this problem before it’s too late.

The government has been talking about unpaid internships – basically, work experience, which is what I was trying to do after graduating. On the face of it, internships seem a great … but they have their disadvantages. Most notably, a young graduate cannot always afford to spend six months on an unpaid internship. Nor is there any guarantee that the company offering the internship would see it as anything more than a chance to use unpaid labour.

This is not going to be enough. Is there anything else we can do?

First, we can insist on additional work experience as part of a university course.

Second, we can expand the internship program (and perhaps tie it to welfare.) I had problems finding a library willing to take me, even as an unpaid volunteer. If it was compulsory to take someone, if there was a slot, perhaps it would have been easier.

Third, we can expand the number of vocational courses. Sure, being a plumber or a janitor doesn’t sound as good as being a librarian (or anything else, for that matter) but there is always work for them. (While we’re at it, we might want to say that anyone who claims benefits has to work as a street-cleaner one day a week. It would be very useful in certain places.)

Fourth, we can eliminate the degree requirements. Proven ability to do a job should count for more than a scrap of paper. (This will favour job hunters with experience, I admit.)



[I sent a copy of this to the writer of TEH BURNING STOOPID. Here is his response.]

You haven’t heard of the Education Bubble ??   It’s about to pop.  Endless utterly useless "degrees", imparting little, if any, useful skills.

Let’s look at my Master’s Degree, in Management Information Science, concentration in Information Security.  I actually learned very little in this program, primarily about ERP systems  and some academics in Computer Forensics (but no hands-on, because the software STARTS at US$12K/ forensics workstation.  They had ONE copy of it at the University.  In Nebraska.  Most of whose students were online  (about a third of my classmates were in Iraq, Saudi, or Afghanistan. . .)

Another 50% of the class were kids straight out of undergrad programs.  Who had writing, argument, and research skills, IN GRAD SCHOOL, that were considered the norm for College-track students in 10th Grade in the US  (14-year-olds, translate that to whatever letter-levels they are in the Brit Schools. . .)

[Standard Grades in Scotland, O-Levels in England (or at least that was the case when I was a student – Chris]

About 10% had no problems with outright plagiarization, even when called on it by peers.  And the reliance on group projects, and group GRADES for those projects.   (Note: the guy on my team who copy-pasted his piece of our project was called out by ALL the other members.  I kept the email trail.  And then when he refused to do anything about it. . .   I reported it to the prof, co-signed by the rest of the team.  He was expelled.  He then COMPLAINED TO MY EMPLOYER that I had gotten him thrown out of grad school.  Handy thing, that paper trail. . . )

The biggest problem **I** see, is the death of trade schools.  There USED to be trade schools, where you would learn machining, electrician, etc.

Nowadays, they’re all folded into "Community Colleges" which ALSO require all sorts of non-trade-related courses (to justify the existence of most of the professors)

Both my daughters are enrolled in one, and both complain about the idiotic "distribution" requirements for their trade programs (Oldest is doing Medical Records/Coding, youngest is doing Systems Administration/Network Security.  WHY do they need to take Art or Literature or Social Studies classes for a PROFESSIONAL certificate ???

Over here, King Jugears is trying to build up a frenzy because the Student Loan interest rate is about to double.  From 3% to 6%.   Funny, when **I** got student loans, they asked me WHAT I was studying, wanted a look at my transcript, and what career I was training for.   Because the loan, while government-guaranteed, was from a PRIVATE bank that levied interest based on the RISK they wouldn’t get it back.    Since Teh One was Annointed, all the student loans moved to the Feds, the "Student Loan Marketing Administration", or as it is better known over here, "Sallie Mae". . .    And generous loans are given to anyone who is enrolled in an approved program, regardless of grades or major. . .  .  when **I** got a student loan, it was tuition-only.  Nowadays, it’s Tuition + Student Fees + Books + Commuting Expenses + Living Expenses.   My daughters have far higher loans than me.

Oh. and Internships ??  Companies are now being SUED for not paying Interns, here in the States. . .

Now, let’s look at my Plan for Welfare and Training:

So you want benefits  ??  Great.  Come on in!  You sign up, and are allowed ONE suitcase of clothing and personal possessions.  The rest ?  Turned over to the Government for storage until you can pay your own way.

First up, medical:  If you’re a woman, you’re getting a birth-control implant.  If you object to birth control for moral or religious reasons, we show you the door and hand you your property, and wish you well.

Housing:  We call them "Barracks".  Which you WILL maintain and clean to standard.  Think the Marine Barracks in "Full Metal Jacket" and you get the idea.

Food: we call it a dining hall.  Enjoy. 

Medical: daily sick call.

Education: you WILL take classes in a useful skill.  If you cannot choose for yourself, aptitude testing will look at what you’re suited for, and the suitable jobs with the most openings are what you will train for.   2-3 days of classroom and lab work, 8 hours a day, plus homework.  And 3 other days of the week, you’re doing that work. 

Kids:  if you have kids, they’ll be in other barracks.  In class 5/6 days a week,  You can see them, in supervised areas, on your day off.

Etc. . .


9 Responses to “A Wasted Three Years?”

  1. joelaarhus@gmail.com June 23, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    Did that book have a yellow cover? I think I might have had it too.

  2. Sithicus June 25, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    You should check out a book by Aaron Clarey “Worthless”. It pretty much expands on what you have written in your article.

  3. Palladian July 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Agree with Sithicus. In fact, you might find Clarey’s blog, “Captain Capitalism” interesting too. barfly to barfly, keep up the good work

    • chrishanger July 17, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

      Cool! I’ll look them up.


      Sent from my iPad

  4. Tim Roeder August 19, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    A college degree is no guarantee of a good job — even if you do work in field in which you studied. Case in point: I have a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s Degree, and two Doctorates — none of which would help me get a job right now. And most of my best experience in life revolved around the most efficient ways to kill people — which doesn’t translate well to a civilian job market.

    But, somehow, I make do with little odd-jobs and selling reloads…which is the most I’m able to do given my physical disabilities.

    But thank God, at least my life is never boring!

    • chrishanger August 20, 2013 at 9:07 am #

      True, but it is incredibly frustrating to put in all that work and end up with nothing useful. If it were up to me, I would add mandatory work experience too. (Though it sounds as though you’re better prepared than me.) Chris > Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2013 09:39:15 +0000 > To: christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com >


  1. Personal Responsibility (Or Not) | The Chrishanger - March 5, 2015

    […] as a librarian or a writer, that suggests that college/university degrees are actually important. Much of my university course could reasonably have been compressed down to a single year, with a lit…. Indeed, if half the stories I hear about American colleges are true, less politics and social […]

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