The 'degrees are useless' theory is fine if you're posh, assertive and lucky - the only people it fails are poorer children

Rich kids bypassing uni for top jobs shows just how rigged our society is

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The Independent Online

“We have already got girls going into quite handsomely paid internships in the holidays,” says Clarissa Farr of St Paul’s Girls School in London. “I expect to see 18-year-olds being snapped up by big-name firms straight away.” Farr is headmistress at the £23,500-a-year school where 98.9 per cent of A-level pupils last year achieved A*, A or B grades.

I’m not entirely sure if it’s the great grades at St Paul’s which get the girls snapped up for these “handsomely paid” trainee roles. A foot in the door at a fabulous company tends to occur via stellar connections, sharp elbows and the general cut of a girl’s gib when called in for an informal coffee. But I can see why many St Paul’s girls see university as, in Clarissa Farr’s words, “a waste of time”.

If one is primed, directed and cheer-led towards success like this genre of schoolchild is, well, three years on a campus indulging in learning for learning’s sake must seem like time squandered. Tally ho and onwards towards power!

Why waste time with the general hoi polloi, stuck in sweaty seminars and over-subscribed libraries, when one could parachute – aged just 18 – directly into a “big name firm”? And, more crucially, into firms that are suddenly curiously blasè about the first-class degrees and other CV accoutrements that comprehensive schoolchildren run themselves ragged over.

The fact that the finely reared and heavily cosseted now believe that less education is more is a symbol of how neatly society is rigged.

Posh people being assertive, cocky and at the same time really, terribly lucky is nothing new, but what concerns me about this “degrees are useless” theory is that the only people it fails are poorer children. Because bright-but-poorer kids are already being bashed around the head with debt-gloom each time they make curious noises about higher education.

Bad mouthing degrees isn’t a new, radical theory at all: working-class parents have been doing it for the past century, long before the £50,000 student debt price-tag. But now rich and poor parents can unite in the spluttering: “Pfft, degrees are not worth the paper they’re written on”.


Except that while the poor parents will continue to use this schtick as a way to clip wings and hope the child stays closer to home, the rich ones can use it as an excuse for a good old-fashioned bit of queue jumping. “The top university will not be the only route for the very able,” Clarissa Farr says. “Children are finding it difficult to pay for it. Why would you if you did not need to?”

A harsh fact is that an education from St Pauls – or any of these sublime private schools – is so much better than a bog-standard comprehensive that when the two sets of pupils reach university, the posher ones may feel they are treading water. In contrast, I scraped into university from a relatively low-achieving school and truly feel this was the day my education began.

University was – and still is, despite its PR problem – a world of reading, extra reading, stiff deadlines and disciplined essay writing. Most vitally, it is populated by other brainy sorts to throw ideas  around with. Plus a lot of absolute roaring weirdos one will meet on Freshers Week and spend six terms trying to shake  off, but let’s file that under “developing social skills”.

It is the gateway to a bigger, brighter world, which I’m not entirely certain that state school sixth formers will glean from an Aldi Management Training Scheme position and a good look around Google Images.

It is fashionable to say one learned nothing at university – and I’m certain I’ve been guilty of this at some point – but the truth is that this period of learning will pepper, assist, abet and plant seeds in almost everything one does in the future.

Not that I agree nowadays with numerous theories I learned, the lecture notes I learned verbatim, the dubious arguments I daubed into essays, or the idiotic student politics I was entangled with. But at least I know enough about these concepts to know that I no longer know what I think. I know for sure I hate Jacques Derrida and his stupid school of Deconstruction philosophy, but I shall fight to the death for my niece’s right to hate him equally.

I shall not rest until the other generations of Dent women have schlepped to a far-off university (probably through clearing), been pushed to meltdown by the plays of Samuel Beckett, been publicly shamed by D grades written in red ink on the tutor’s door, and have shared slapdash-built uni accommodation with flatmates so uptight that one boy keeps his cheese in the fridge in a locked safety deposit box. The parties, the in-jokes, the doomed romances and close-quarters heartbreak, the cliques you imagine might stick together forever.

And above all, that growing sense that one is standing on one’s own two feet, alone, hundreds of miles from one’s family, and might never move home ever again.

Perhaps for the more privileged child boarding school covers a lot of this ground, but there is something rather sad about a world where all the other gifted kids stay at home. Missing out on a degree may be a fast track-route to greatness – so why does it feel like a slippery slope to poorer kids missing out entirely?