Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Jessica L.
Why are we doing this again?
Staring at the faceless squares of my classmates on Zoom whilst feeling the collaborative and awkward silences in our breakout rooms, I can’t help but feel like I am being swindled. As though I am being fooled into thinking that this is what learning is about, or that what I’m doing now will dramatically impact the outcome of my future. At the same time there is a looming anxiety that hangs over me, making me wonder, what am I going to do with my life? It doesn’t feel like I’m in an environment surrounded by “scholars and teachers” who will guide me towards my true potential. Most of the time It feels like I’m paying for an over-glorified 4-year-long membership to contemplate my existential crisis and listlessness as a university student.
Living in an era where information is plentiful, learning opportunities endless and at a cheaper price, universities’ once alluring promises now feel like an outright scam.
Scam 1 - “You’ll Change the World”
I started out with the naive belief that I was here in this towering, sandstone, ever-green manicured campus for the pursuit of knowledge when I was 19 years old. I thought I wanted to be an art therapist and believed that I was capable of becoming something more if I studied at university. Halfway through my second semester, the once passionate zeal to pursue knowledge started to falter. It didn’t feel like I was learning anything that would help me make a positive impact on the world. It was actually making me disheartened and de-motivated. I wasn’t succeeding in the way I wanted to, I didn’t get marks that were worth noticing and I hated the feeling of meaninglessness that started to settle in me. When you become a student you start to see the reality that was hidden under the hopeful platitudes. Maybe you could have “changed the world” but you are too worried about surviving university or getting a job or trying to find some semblance of meaning in what you are doing. It’s easier to start thinking the world can wait a little bit longer for someone else to change it. “You can make a difference” on university homepages starts to feel like deflating sentiment when you already believe that it does not apply to you.
Universities market themselves as though they are offering this “hope”. The kind of hope that is “inspiring”, “innovative”, “transformative” and more than anything else so impactful in solving the many problems of this world. It promises to tap into the hidden potential in all of us and turn it into something that is exceptional for the growth of our industry and the collective development of knowledge . Yet when you become a student, the institution reveals that only a select few are tasked with changing the world, especially if you want to enter research or work in academia. An undergraduate degree is sometimes not enough to start practising in your desired field, often requiring further education. The opportunity to get into higher levels of education is selective and gatekeeping, with high WAMs or GPAs being the minimum barometer to measure admission. The “YOU” that will be invited to change the world is a very specific type; you have to be technically skilled, professionally successful and prove yourself to be a lucrative investment to the industry. The gate will only be opened if you can prove to the institution that you will deliver those things and more. Values such as the pursuit of deeper knowledge, social justice or desire for learning are not enough to carry you ahead.
Scam 2 - “You’ll have a better life”
There’s no denying that degrees allow access into certain jobs, lifestyles and communities that are otherwise inaccessible. They have the very influential capacity to change the lives of families at an intergenerational level through one educated family member. The question arises though: are we studying for a better life, or for our revered social status? Are they one and the same? Sometimes our career paths aren’t chosen by us, but driven by society and our families. We all know that a degree in STEM and medicine is the optimal, while humanities and social sciences unfortunately don’t give you the status of having a “real university degree”. When the government increased debt for humanities students to try deterring them from choosing a “lesser degree”, they confirmed that they don’t mind attacking students for choices that are perceived as not serving the economy. No one chose to study humanities, social sciences or journalism based on how much it costs. Yet, instead of deterring students, it’s only increased their ongoing debt.
For international students, the situation only gets worse. When ScoMo urged them to return home, many were left completely stranded, their promise of a better life cut off at the knees. Many couldn’t actually return home, as their governments had closed borders. To make matters worse, many international students lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic impacting a majority of hospitality and service industries. Leaving more than 500,000 students unable to support their livelihoods because they have lost their casual or part-time jobs. They cast out the people whose money and labour were being used to uphold the system. It begs the question, what kind of better life are international students pursuing, if their “education” is already costing them so much right now?
“... It’s a small price to pay for my future. No matter how unfair it is, it is what it is for any student who decides to pursue an education abroad… We are reminded every day that It was our choice, an exuberant amount of money has been thrown in and we just have to grit our teeth, get it over and done with.”
When I asked my friend, “do you think University is a scam?”
Without any hesitation she replied “ Definitely.”
Scam 3 - “You’ll receive the best education”
I remember one foundational class where I was taught how to use 'excel spreadsheets' by lecturers and tutors. In the lecture halls I was unable to shake off the feeling that I was wasting my time and desperately trying to convince myself that this was important. While procrastinating, I ended up finding multiple courses on excel training from LinkedIn Learning that were more comprehensive and detailed compared to my semester long subject. When I see the price of my classes and the content being taught AT me, I feel as though the price doesn’t always translate to the true value of the content. Most of the time it feels more like I am paying for access to the additional materials such as textbooks, workshops and up-skilling platforms more than the “impeccable” educational content. It does make me wonder what is the defining and valuable feature of university education, when other alternatives are shown to be more engaging and affordable.
There is enough to sow some doubt as to the efficacy of lectures, tutorials and practicals in the formation of learning technical and professional skills. The transition towards more online learning platforms is the last straw that is making us question the quality of education that we are receiving in comparison to the amount we are indebted to pay.
It Is What It Is?
Now living in a world where degrees have become more embellishments to our resumes, It makes sense to question these institutions and the authority they have over our lives.
The illusion of University is beginning to crack bit by bit, but I still find myself collecting the broken shards with the belief that it isn’t true. I am in this system willingly. I compromise, doublethink and somehow compartmentalise the inklings of perceived value that are promised from this kind of environment. It seems like a contradiction for me to think that University is a scam and yet I am still willingly part of the institution itself. I’m hypocritical in many ways because I support the system as much as I critique it. Even though I know there are other alternatives to university, I still went down this route because my future career aspirations can only be achieved through this pathway. A degree is a box to tick, years to waste for a paper. We are all using university to get ahead in our lives, but let’s never fool ourselves that this is the epitome of what education should be.
Edited by Lamisa H.