The price of an education?

Sophie Quinn explores the motivation behind choosing a degree

King's College chapel, Cambridge | by Aran Macfarlane

If it isn’t too painful, try to cast your mind back to the Cambridge application process. You’ll find your flashbacks haunted by the words ‘passion’, ‘fascination’ and ‘intellectual stimulation’. This idea - that Cambridge is for the true nerds who just love their subject - was drilled relentlessly into all of us. And paying £9,000 a year for the privilege of a place here? A worthy price to pay.

Inspiring and romantic as this notion is, it is cultivated by the lost generations of adults who who could go to university for free. Upon leaving, they could confidently expect to get a job and comfortably live alone. There’s nothing baby boomers love more than referring to millennials as lazy and indulged, but they never felt the palpable terror of needing to support themselves in a dire economy. Apparently there’s no Cyber Monday on tuition fees, making the daily prospect of getting hit by a bike on Trumpington Street slightly less terrifying when considering the that damages you could sue for would lessen your student debt.

And so you wrote in your personal statement, ‘from a young age, I have always been interested in…No, you haven’t. You decided to do Law three months before applying because it was the closest thing to the philosophical and ethical issues you think you might actually have that elusive feeling which people call ‘passion’ for - while not completely ruling out the prospect of ever having a job. Not to mention wanting to put off making big life decisions for another three years - hopefully studying a subject with a profession attached to it would do the trick.

Arts students, it seems, are the most courageous of the bunch. Being greeted with articles from The Tab about poor employment and earning prospects compared to Medicine or Engineering every time they check Facebook probably doesn’t give them the needed motivation to get that further reading done. But you go to Cambridge, you’re smart and you most likely will be successful…yet The Fear that you’re wasting your time and money on an over-indulgent academic degree is constantly there. This can be bewildering for us. Since we were little (and the economic Armageddon of 2008 hadn’t quite hit), we were told “do what makes you happy,” and “you can do anything you set your mind to.” Except a History of Art degree. Don’t do that.

However, the notion that arts and humanities students are to be congratulated for following their Dead Poets Society dreams is debatable. There is an element of privilege attached to studying an arts degree. The less fortunate face the anxiety of being unable to support themselves and having no one else to fall back on, while the more fortunate lack this attitudinal barrier. Having parents who accept and support whatever decision you make is often taken for granted. Not everyone has those perfectly middle-class parents who take their children to art galleries and discuss Sartre over the dinner table. Disproportionately small numbers of low-income students enrol in arts and humanities courses, especially in universities not so well-off as Cambridge. From personal experience, knowing what it is like to struggle financially was a significant factor in choosing a course that is favourable to employment.

But worry not. I do actually like, dare say love, my course. Yet this is by no means the case for every student. Following your passion is easier said than done; if your passion is dentistry, you’ve lucked out - but teeth don’t do it for everyone. What ‘follow your dreams’ advocates sometimes fails to realise is that university, for many, is an investment. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t study what you love - if you are lucky enough to have found such a thing - but rather that students who go with their head over their heart and choose a ‘practical’ degree cannot be blamed for doing so. Finding your passion is difficult enough, and having the opportunity to pursue it should not be taken for granted.

Sophie Quinn is a first year lawyer