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Martha Robinson: University is no guarantee of your future

Pity the generation hit by top-up fees - and which now might not find work

As a first-year medical student, I have the privilege of knowing that my future employment is both a far-off prospect (only coming after six years of student life) and fairly secure. In fact, employment levels among graduating medical, dental and veterinary students are so high that they are normally excluded from surveys of graduate unemployment. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of my counterparts taking less vocational qualifications.

The entire timbre of graduation has changed. The days of recruiters competing for final-year students are gone. The focus of careers advice is no longer on finding a career that suits you, but simply on finding work of any kind. My institution has even set up a blog on "graduating in a recession", collecting job opportunities and advice for students about to leave university with no assurance that they will have work in six months' time.

This year's graduates have had a particularly rough deal. They were the first cohort to be charged "top-up fees" (non-means tested, higher tuition fees) and are now the first to graduate in the post-credit crunch economy. They are in more debt than their counterparts who entered higher education in 2005 and, if they are lucky enough to find employment, face lower starting salaries.

The recession is hurting everyone, not just graduates, but the real scandal here is that for the past three years students have been paying more than £3,000 a year on the understanding that their employment prospects would be improved.

In making the case for top-up fees, the government presented the "value" of a university-level education as economic, rather than intellectual. University was an "investment" in the future, which would increase earnings post-graduation (the figure of £100,000 over a lifetime was enthusiastically brandished). The debt, the loss of earnings from three years out of full-time paid work, and the late nights in the library would all be worth it in the end – it was all for that graduate salary and the promise of a career.

Only it wasn't worth it.

At least, not financially, and not for those who started their degrees in 2006. They have been sold, at inflated prices, a "university edge" and a "graduate career" that has failed to materialise. Can charging such large sums (£3,225 a year at the last count at my institution) really be justified when the economic "value" of a degree has fallen by so much?

It needs to be stressed that university is valuable, and always will be, but not for economic reasons. It is an intellectual exercise – a chance to explore a subject you love, and for that reason alone it's worth all kinds of sacrifice. These graduates, however, were not only promised a rigorous education. They were promised a future. Instead, they are stuck with more debt than many of their parents, entering a similar economic situation in the 1980s, would have had as jobless graduates.

This year's graduates are the first test of the top-up fees system, and the first sign that it has failed. They have every right to be angry, not only over the loss of their bright promised future, but over the way that education has been framed as more valuable for its contribution to the wallet than to the mind.

Martha Robinson is studying at University College, London