Editor-At-Large: Graduates leave with more debts than knowledge

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The Independent Online

On Friday I attended a moving ceremony in Maidstone. Hundreds of graduates of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and social backgrounds patiently queued up to receive their degrees from the University of Creative Arts, where the pass rate is a highly commendable 92 per cent.

The university is just a year old, with campuses across Surrey and Kent in the south-east of England, and specialises in courses in film, video, animation, photography, fashion and the graphic arts. There's even a degree course in museum curating, which must seem an excellent career option, given the recent rise in attendance numbers. I was proud to be awarded an honorary MA – 40 years after I took a year off from architectural college to enter journalism, never to return.

All over the country similar ceremonies are taking place, with proud parents cheering from the sidelines as the largest ever number of graduates receives degrees. But what lies in store for the class of 2009? They are the brave flag-bearers for New Labour's dream of better education for all – the first generation to have paid £3,000 a year in top-up tuition fees. They might be well educated in a dazzling range of disciplines, but their average debt is a whopping £15,700, which, if they are lucky enough to get a job on the average graduate pay of £22,300, will take 12 years to pay off. Set that against statistics which show 44 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds don't save at all, and you can see the burden these graduates carry as they leave college.

Getting a degree has been heavily promoted by Labour as an excellent way of improving your chances of getting a good job. But since the recession, the number of graduates finding work six months after leaving college has dropped to 62 per cent – and those with degrees in the arts, history, philosophy, computer sciences and physical education are the most likely to be affected. Nevertheless, more than 80 per cent of the students I saw being awarded degrees last week will eventually find work, although they may have to compromise to get a foot on the ladder in their chosen discipline. It's not surprising that applications for places on MA courses have risen by 26 per cent.

Labour can be proud of the increase in numbers at university – although those coming from the lowest income groups account for only 21 per cent (an increase of a mere 3 per cent), in spite of millions being poured into creating new universities and expanding courses. The vast proportion of people attending university is still from the middle classes – and with the level of debt involved, is that any surprise? In spite of Gordon Brown's professed aim of education for all, his minister of higher education, David Lammy, is a lightweight who has singularly failed to stand up to the Treasury to protect students from even higher charges.

Last week he announced a freeze in student grants, the first since they were introduced five years ago. At the same time, tuition fees were increased to £3,290, up 2.04 per cent. The Government has also cut financial support for trainee teachers, which seems a bit short-sighted, given the poor levels of numeracy and literacy, and the fact that the Government is planning to spend £25 an hour for one-to-one tuition to try to help struggling children. The Government wants MOTs for teachers, and the Tories plan a new requirement of minimum GCSEs at grade B in English and maths to teach primary school children.

Rather than tinker with what qualifications teachers need, we need to change their training so that they acquire better communication and presentational skills to get their message across. Graduates, too, need to be better prepared for the world of work. Rather than going on to study for MAs and increase their level of debt, many would be more employable if they had the social and literacy skills needed for the working environment. There comes a point when more qualifications aren't necessarily going to get you a better job. What employers are looking for is adaptability, positivity, and an ability to fit in. There's no point in getting a degree in graphics, computer science or animation if you can't communicate your ideas. It might seem petty, but that's the reality in the world of work.

Dark Dawn: Big is rarely beautiful in the media

The appeal of The Vicar of Dibley passed me by, but I love Dawn French – she's smart and doesn't give a stuff what people think. She surprised people by announcing she thought she'd die young, and I suspect there's a Dark Dawn that's carefully shielded from the public gaze. I loathe the way the media constantly harp on about women's weight – generally only when they're big – as if the size of our arses was in inverse ratio to our attractiveness.

Last Sunday poor Charlie Dimmock was the latest female to be castigated for looking double the size of Cheryl Cole, the Twiglet with tits. A picture of the "old" Charlie had the caption "in her heyday". Hang on. Charlie is actually filming a series for ITV at the moment, as well as working with Disney, so she's not exactly in the Anthea Turner waiting room of desperation. Sarah Ferguson, never one to shy away from free publicity, has announced she will be shedding weight on a radical diet for a new ITV show called Fit at 50. What that means is Thin at 50, doesn't it?

I applaud Dawn for the way she champions a woman's right to be big, but I don't buy her explanation for the fact she's now a size 20. She calls it "body blindness" – surely it's just piggery, plain and simple, Dawn. I'm a chunky size 14 and I didn't get there without a lot of glasses of wine, peanuts, slices of toast and new potatoes.

The sands of time have left these two behind

It's holiday season again, and I roared with laughter at what Charles and Camilla wore to tour beaches in the Scilly Isles. They were photographed standing in the sand, surrounded by minions, looking totally lost. He's probably asking, "Darling, is this powdery damp stuff we're standing on where ordinary subjects spend weeks doing nothing sprawled in deck chairs?"

She's had her hair combed into that slightly overbleached helmet, shovelled on the eye make-up and popped on a knee-length dress with matching jacket and casual beach jewellery, including pearls, bracelet and earrings. He's posing stiffly in a double-breasted Prince of Wales check suit, polished black lace-ups, striped blue and white shirt and tie. Does one ever deign to put on shorts, a T-shirt or loafers? Or is his wardrobe as antiquated as his views on architecture? Charles and Camilla are younger than me, but they seem like a couple of fossils.

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