In July the newest generation of York’s graduates gowned up and descended upon Central Hall to graduate from the University. Meanwhile media headlines despair at youth unemployment and diminishing prospects while university finalists agonise over the future.
But are those first steps into the big bad world really that much harder to make in 2013 than when the University of York opened its doors to the first 200 undergraduates fifty years ago? And did those first leavers have a different attitude to going to university and building a career. Young professionals and graduates believe that they’ve got to be ever more savvy, wily and flexible to get where they want to go.
Laura Highton, graduating in History and Politics this year, told me she has a clear idea of the career she’d like to pursue: “Ultimately, I’d like to work in international development or conflict resolution, for the Foreign Office, or perhaps for an NGO or think tank.” And the path to get there? “I’m starting an MSc in Security Studies at UCL this September. I think furthering my academic studies in these areas will prepare me well. Having said that, practical experience is equally as important so I want to be able to accompany my studies with more hands-on involvement in the processes of development and peace-building programmes.”
Rewind fifty years and we find a slightly different outlook on life. Nigel Fountain, now a successful freelance journalist and author, graduated in 1966 in Politics (Derwent). He too went on to do a postgraduate course in London. “When I graduated I didn’t know what I was going to do. I proceeded to go off and bugger up a year at the LSE. It was fun because having got through university I thought ‘oh, that was quite good. Let’s try extending this’.
“In fact not only that, if truth be told I think a key reason why I went to the LSE was because I read something in The Observer which said that it had the best bar north of the Thames. Which in fact proved, as is so often in the case of The Observer to be an inaccurate statement.” One can imagine his frustration. And the course itself? “The course was allegedly in International Relations, but all I really did was eat Chinese meals in Limehouse.”
So no ‘career path’ then? “No, My career path was that I wanted to be a journalist. I made that decision when I was about 14.” Like many people in his profession Nigel made his break “by accident” – “A friend of mine was being interviewed by a very distinguished Observer journalist about ‘the student in power’. The only problem was my dear friend was pissed out of his head. As a consequence, I was called in and made acquaintance with Mary Holland, who was the journalist in this case, and through her I got a commission for The Observer.”
Nigel does point out that we should allow for a level of “post-adolescent cluelessness” which might account for the contrast with Laura, as well as a bit of selective nostalgia. He tells me he was the first in his family to go to university, whilst Laura saw university as a natural progression after school, “My parents both went on to do masters and PhDs after their undergrad degrees and I’ve just always enjoyed academia (spoken like a true teacher’s daughter!).”
Perhaps changed perceptions after university are framed by the different position higher education plays in the 21st century. Nigel says he’s not surprised that competition for graduate positions is fiercer now than when he left, “In the 60s, 4% of the population went to university, now what is it, more than 40%. I was indeed the first member of my family to go to university. I didn’t think I’d got it made, I never have, but I did kind of think this is a definite step up for yours truly.” One wouldn’t go as far to say that degrees have been devalued, but job hunters certainly have a harder time standing out in the ever-increasing pool of graduates.
One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed over York’s 50 years is the run of people’s final year. Nigel tells me he “edited Nouse two terms before my finals, suicidal stupidity on my part. Otherwise my lasting memories are a growing sense of panic, moving into the university for my last two terms, which was an extremely wise move in terms of study, and taking a lot of pills which I thought would psych me up but in fact nearly knocked me out. And friendship – the first 200, they were some really rather interesting and odd people…” Laura’s answer – more simple but reflecting the same sentiments, “The people and the books.”