November 20, 2013 6:34 pm

Snatching away the glittering prizes

Austerity is hitting students hard, curbing expectations and scope for extracurricular fun

An FT series has highlighted the difficulties facing new graduates.

Ministers and universities are at the centre of a new mis-selling scandal after it emerged that they were packaging up and selling student loans on a promise of a brighter future that does not deliver.

Many of the degrees on offer were rated AAA but led to only junk status jobs. “I read The Glittering Prizes,” said one graduate. “There was nothing in it about becoming an assistant manager at Aldi.”

Students have complained that they took the loans under different economic conditions when they expected to leave college and walk into a top job at the BBC. Many have been forced to accept jobs in offices or at lower levels than suggested by any of their own assessments of their abilities.

The scale of the mis-selling is demonstrated by the fact the mean starting salary for a graduate is now around £3,000 less than the national average. Some face waits of up to four years before they will earn more than most of the population. Even those who land good jobs are having to scale back their dreams. “Jérôme Kerviel nearly brought down Société Générale in his late 20s. You’d never get a chance like that so young these days,” said one.

Others were enduring the indignity of having to begin their careers with non-graduate jobs and work their way up. “I know there has been an economic crisis,” said one, “but no one said it would affect graduates.”

In London, the combination of rising rents and lower salaries means graduates are having to live in really unfashionable areas, like the suburbs where their parents were raised.

The university experience has also been soured for many. Some students complain they cannot afford to get drunk as often as they used to. Even members of Oxford’s elite Bullingdon Club report now having to fuel their drunken rampage on Prosecco. A recent rampage by the club which once counted David Cameron and Boris Johnson as members ended without a single restaurant being smashed up although members did at least deface a bus timetable.

Drugs are also more difficult to come by. One second year said his dealer had raised prices and that he was now having to compete for the best gear with members of the Co-operative movement.

The expansion of university education has also made it far harder for those who had previously planned to cruise through their humanities degree in an alcoholic stupour before cramming for their finals at the last minute. In the newly competitive environment many graduates complain that employers are suddenly “getting all stuck-up” about a mediocre degree.

Where previously only medical and other vocational students had to put in the hours at college, some campuses report that even English Literature students are having to work hard. Others say the increasing competition in the labour market means they have to do “like, really boring degrees” to get a good job.

Ministers say there was no mis-selling, that graduates remain the most fortunate of their generation and that the prospects for non-graduates are even worse. But that does little to assuage the disappointed grads.

The pressures on the so-called “Generation Y isn’t life easier?” cohort are greater at home. Many say their parents still expect them to have better lives than they did.

So parents are now being urged to manage their own expectations for their kids and to stop telling them they can be anything they want to be. One father said: “I still tell my kids to follow their passion, I just say to make sure their passion is engineering.”

. . .

Ask not. . .

Like most people, I was not born – and so do not remember what I was doing – when I didn’t hear John F. Kennedy had been shot. I am, however, old enough to recall exactly where I was when I first read he was still dead. Now as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination a new generation will be able to experience the same feeling.

TV shows, supplements and books are being devoted to the fact that he is still dead even though most people now living do not remember his ever being alive. Now everyone under 50 can relive the trauma we weren’t able to feel at the time. There are also a number of new books on the assassination which prove decisively that we don’t really know much more than we did 50 years ago. On the other hand he was jolly good looking, charismatic and apparently a bit of a ladies’ man – oh and quite a good president, but you knew that.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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