Should universities be pushing students away from the milkround and if so…what towards?
by Helen Lawless
In a recent opinion piece on the Guardian George Monbiot lambasts graduates for taking entry positions in soulless corporations such as management consultancies, investment banks, and lobbying firms; and shames the neglectful universities who fail to present soon-to-be-graduates with alternatives. Now I understand where he’s coming from. As a recent politics and economics graduate I have seen many of my incredibly bright friends take jobs in companies they aren’t especially invested in, performing tasks they don’t find all that interesting. And that is unfortunate. But it is simply unfair and patronising of an upper middle class, middle-aged man to tell young people living at the height of economic uncertainty that they should not be so vulgar to care about a starting salary.
Graduates have rent, graduates have utility bills, graduates have student loans. Not to mention the precarious state of national pension schemes and the skyrocketing prices of accommodation mean many of us need a little extra for our savings accounts. Left-wing critics frequently tout the cost of living crisis as being the greatest failure of the Tory government, but surely it is exactly this crisis which contextualises and validates these graduates’ decisions?
The crux of Monbiot’s complaint seems to be that students aren’t presented with enough “spiritually meaningful” alternatives. The alternatives that would appeal to these top-tier humanities graduates are scarce to say the least. Paid entry positions or even internships in journalism, charities and think tanks are incredibly few and far between, with intimidating rates of competition. Couple this with the fact that most of these organisations are based in London, which has one of the highest costs of living and average rent rates in the country, and these options become utterly unfeasible for many. As a result most of the graduates who take these positions come from only the most economically privileged backgrounds.
Highly sought after non-governmental organisations often don’t pay their interns because they know how desperately students and graduates need the experience. Or similarly they may pay the minimum wage instead of the living wage. In London that means you get £6.50 an hour instead of £9.15. If you work full time that’s a loss of £92.75 a week or £371.00 a month compared to what you could probably make in a decent retail job let alone working for a management consultancy. If corporations are bribing graduates with a salary, then these organisations are blackmailing them with a prestigious name.
Another point Monbiot makes is that graduates basically get sucked in. That once you’re on the corporate ladder you gradually lose your principles and your appetite to do anything different, and as a result no one ever stays in these industries for just the short-term. I would hypothesise that if you have given up your dream of working in a non-profit after eighteen months of a comfortable starting salary and generous after work drinks you probably weren’t that principled to begin with. Many people do use their experience in public relations to move in to journalism, or the connections from working for a lobbyist to be a parliamentary assistant for a left-wing politician later. Many use their savings from the corporate world to eventually volunteer in a third world country or afford to do a PhD in political theory. But if your socialist fire can be extinguished by the shimmering possibility of a performance bonus I dare say your champagne socialism during university probably was just a phase.
Yes corporate recruiting on campuses has become more sophisticated and more aggressive, but the promise of a steady income from a steady job was always a shadowy threat to would-be artists and aspiring novelists. What is more lamentable is that the choice for a graduate to follow their non-Wall Street dreams has become increasingly economically difficult. If Monbiot is really concerned about the best and the brightest being sequestered by heartless multinational corporations he shouldn’t be torching careers fairs, he should be presenting them with a genuine alternative.