Last week, I attended the Oxford Union debate entitled “This house believes that we are all feminists now”. Despite the rather clumsy wording of the motion, it was by all accounts an entertaining evening with some marvellous anecdotal moments from Michael Beloff QC. But the argument that made the most impact on me, funnily enough, had nothing to do with the debate at all. Indeed, in an understated, yet clear address, Rachel Johnson stated that while at Oxford, she was the archetype example of the over-ambitious, pushy undergraduate: the sort who gets involved in an endless raft of university societies and committees: the sort, she pointed out to the chamber, most people hoped would get their comeuppance once they left university.
Instead, she pointed out, the very opposite was the case. These same people ended up virtually running the show: they became today’s MPs, CEOs and Director-Generals, heading up the great private and public institutions of the country.
Johnson’s remark was in substantiation of a wider point about feminism, but it got me thinking about why exactly we have come to university. The idealist in me would say it is all about enjoyment and fun: the last opportunity to revel in the relatively carefree life of a student, before plunging into the inevitable abyss of job-searching and tax. But another part of me, stirring admittedly in the face of internships and vacation schemes, feels that this idyllic model of university life is really a cruel trap, designed to catch the most naive undergraduates out. For in reality, the graduate job market is so competitive that only students with the very best credentials can hope to break in at the top level. This does not just mean a shiny 2:1 from Oxford either. In sharp contrast, you need to show “competencies” that apparently make you fit for the job. “Have you worked on a society at university?” “Were you in a key position of responsibility on a large committee?” are the crucial interview questions that require you to become the Rachel Johnson “pushy undergraduate” if ever you want to be one of her MPs or CEOs of tomorrow. But for this, you have to inevitably sacrifice a “normal” university experience: summer punting (at least in Oxford), frequenting the college bar and natural socialising that doesn’t include a society committee meeting.
But if you want that “normal” life then beware, it seems. Countless graduates who did well in their exams, made lifelong friends and had a fantastic time at Oxford were met with a rude shock. The moment they tried applying for internships and jobs, no doubt with a sense of smugness at their academic credentials, they found themselves rejected by a system which demands a plateful of extra-curricular and competency activities that can only be attained through an endless roulette of university committees and societies.
We are, of course, living in tough economic times and it is only inevitable that the job market will get tougher and tougher to burst into. But there needs to be a concerted focus by government to make university not a time for mindless CV building, but one to truly relish and remember.