For the Love of… Learning?

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Photo credit: Foter.com

During my graduation ceremony, the head of my university’s English department boldly stated in his speech that graduates live happier, healthier and more comfortable lives than those who choose not to complete higher education courses. At the time I thought, ‘What a load of tripe!’ Several years down the line I still believe this to be the case.

The notion that university attendance leads to higher levels of personal well-being is, I believe, a gross misconception founded on the outdated belief that academic study leads to higher salaries and, therefore, better quality of life. In a country where over half of the school-leaver population now goes on to enrol at university, holding a Bachelor’s degree in the UK today isn’t likely to improve either employment or salary prospects for most graduating students.

For those who hold unflinching career goals and are naturally gifted in academic study university is, of course, always going to be a beneficial endeavour. As well as being able to easily produce work that receives good grades, high academic achievers are also often blessed with the guarantee of professional well-paid work on completion of their courses, regardless of the subjects they choose to study. But for those who are uncertain about their careers, and who may also struggle to produce consistently good coursework, attending university simply doesn’t have the same benefits. Bearing this in mind, the question that I’d like to focus on is whether there is still value in attending university outside of the ‘happier, healthier, more comfortable’ myth. Personally, I believe that there is.

The knowledge and skills that I gained through studying fiction and poetry will always be worth far more to me than any job title or salary.

When I was choosing which course to study, I wasn’t sure about what kind of job I wanted it to lead to. With no specific career goal in mind, I ended up basing my decision on how enjoyable and interesting I thought any given subject would be. After all, what would be the point in studying for a career-specific degree if I might only lose interest in it later on?

Having always enjoyed and felt that I was good at writing, I decided that literature was the most appropriate subject for me. And I’m pleased to say that four years after graduating I have no regrets about this choice. Whilst my degree course has not made my life more happy, healthy or comfortable (life is still just as complicated and I’m still struggling on just a little over minimum wage!), the knowledge and skills that I gained through the study of fiction and poetry will always be worth far more to me than any job title or salary.

Of course, some may feel that attending university without having a specific career in mind is a little extravagant considering how expensive it is. However, I strongly disagree with the perceived benefit of education being so closely tied to the salaries and professional statuses that courses can lead to. University is incredibly expensive – that’s an unfortunate fact. But if there is a desire to learn and a feeling that personal development if nothing else may benefit from it, then doesn’t that alone make education a worthwhile investment?

I will likely spend the rest of my life repaying my £20,000+ student loan. But regardless of this ever-growing debt, I’d still rather be educated in a subject that I’m passionate about than spend the rest of my life feeling as though I’ve missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Higher education isn’t something that will benefit everyone in the same way, but regardless of the jobs and wages that university can and does sometimes lead to, the benefits of learning simply for the love of it should never be underestimated.

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Why Universal Credit is a Universal Joke

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Photo credit: lydia_shiningbrightly via Foter.com / CC BY

When I relocated from London to Bristol earlier this year I wasn’t expecting to end up claiming benefits. With a bit of money in the bank, some festival work lined up, and several job applications underway, I genuinely believed that I would be able to support myself. Had my reasons for leaving London been different (I’ll save the details for another time) then I would have done the sensible thing and made sure that I had a permanent  job lined up before moving. But with my circumstances being  what they were, the most important thing to me at the time was returning quickly to where my family and friends are.

Had I realised just how little support would be available to me when I failed to find a job as quickly as I’d hoped, I may have done things a little differently.

The first problem I encountered after applying for Universal Credit was the unexpectedly long processing time. Having to wait over a month for my claim to be approved meant that I completely ran out of cash before my first payment arrived. Aware of how unhelpful this is for people with no money, Universal Credit offers advance payments to cover living costs during this time. Desperate for cash a few weeks after applying, I borrowed £300 under the agreement that this would be repaid out of my forthcoming allowance over a period of six months. So, before knowing how much money I was entitled to, or if my application had even been approved, I’d already accumulated a substantial new debt with the very system that I’d turned to for financial support. Great.

I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help.

Six weeks later I received notification that £559 would be paid to me every month until my circumstances change. With my rent alone coming in at £650 per month, this news came as a bit of a shock. When I called the contact centre (charged at 45p per minute) to question the decision, I was told that nothing could be done to help. Why? Because people under the age of 35 are expected to live in shared accommodation, and are therefore not eligible for full housing support if they choose to live alone, as I have.

Lacking enough funds at this stage to cover my rent, let alone any bills or food, I found myself in bit of a pickle. Little did I know things were only going to get worse.

Part of the deal with Universal Credit is that a percentage of any earnings you make from employment is deducted from your monthly allowance. Whilst I was aware of this and think it’s fair, at no point did I consider that the processing of deductions might be delayed. Instead of accounting for the the bit of work that I did a few months ago straight away, Universal Credit has only just processed the deduction, several weeks after the wages were paid into my account. With no other income coming in until the end of this month due to unexpected illness and subsequent hospitalisation, this delay has had an enormous impact on my finances, leaving me with just over £100 to cover all of my outgoings.

So, how have I managed with so little money over the last few months? Well, I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help. But it’s scary to imagine how many people must be struggling to make ends meet right now. Without the hot dinners and financial help that I’ve received from my nearest and dearest I would currently be very hungry and in hundreds of pounds worth of debt with my landlord, if not homeless. For those who aren’t so lucky and don’t have anyone to turn to, the outlook is pretty bleak.