There are many downsides to being an English Literature student. Being forced to read Robinson Crusoe in first year and not being eligible for 90 per cent of internships the well-meaning Careers Service emails us to name but two.
But the biggest and most unrelenting downside to studying English rears its expectant head every Christmas; it’s that inevitable question, “what are you going to do with yourself when you graduate?” This loaded question usually comes from an extended family member with whom you have very little in common and is delivered with schadenfreude-laden scepticism. Come Christmas, every English student has armed themselves with rehearsed responses to this question. The toolkit with which we respond to the question is somewhat sparse, and the careers with which we answer often attract remuneration packages with far fewer zeros at the end than those of our peers who study engineering, maths or law. The go-to responses for an English student usually include journalism, teaching, publishing... When one of our answers becomes even more tenuously linked to our degree, we can become very anxious.
This anxiety is probably what provoked my anger when I heard the news on Monday morning that publishing giant Penguin Random House, dream destination of many an MA graduate, was scrapping the degree requirement for candidates for careers at any level of the organisation. My already flimsy degree was apparently worth even less; of course that’s not to say that my degree would necessarily count against me if I were to apply for a position at Penguin, just that it no longer marked me out as a special snowflake. Then, after a cup of coffee and a return to reality, I realised, why the hell should it? What is it about my years attempting to master MyCampus and underlining passages I didn’t really understand that makes me more capable of working at Penguin than my contemporary who had spent the same four years working in offices mastering Excel, payroll systems and doing an eight hour work day, five days a week?
Of course it’s understandable that announcements like Penguin’s make students feel a little cheated. Student shell out thousands of pounds for their degrees and universities are increasingly treating students as customers with wallets to be exploited than valued members of an academic community. As paying customers it’s only natural that we expect a significant return on our investment of which we’ll likely be shouldering the burden for a chunk of our working lives. The sheer cost of a university education warrants students’ expectations of a well-paying job upon graduation, one which would not have been available to them had they not paid to attend university. It’s a cost which puts many very able and capable young people off even registering for a UCAS account. The price is all the more likely to be prohibitive with the Government's scrapping of student maintenance grants, a move which will leave poorer students buried under an even greater mountain of debt.
The socioeconomic range of students is set to narrow even further, a trend which has already been firmly established in Scotland. As the economic diversity of undergraduate diminishes, so too will the diversity of fresh faced graduates bursting into Britain’s offices.
Penguin’s acceptance of candidates who didn’t attend an expensive university will mark a small milestone in the economic diversification of Britain’s offices. As it stands, Penguin may publish many rags to riches stories in the pages of its classics but the publishing industry is not exactly known for its openness or diversity. The characters of these tales of meritocracy and hard work rarely occupy the publishing industry’s desks, much less its boards. By considering experience and talent along with degrees and formal education, Penguin is helping to rewrite the story.
Publishing remains an industry plagued by the inequality of opportunity bred by a culture of unpaid internships and networking. The Guardian has deemed unpaid internships the “scourge of the book publishing industry” and novelist Kerry Hudson has accused Britain’s publishers of failing to “reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country.” It’s worth noting however that Penguin Random House do have a policy of paying interns, their paid internships and now their acceptance of non degree educated candidates are paving the way for a new, fairer publishing industry.
There are benefits to Penguin’s policy change for those of us who do have the opportunity to go to university. If nothing else, a degree in itself just doesn’t cut it any more. This may sound unfair, getting a degree is a lot of hard work and as we’ve established, a hell of an investment. But it’s no longer enough to scrape through, substituting seminars for Netflix and losing morning lectures to foam parties at Hive. The unsavoury fact is that although the socioeconomic range of students may be narrowing, especially under the SNP, there are many more of us. More people than ever before are attending university, arguably this is no bad thing, but it does mean we need to work harder and extracurriculars and work experience (hopefully paid) are all the more important. Graduates need to make their years at university count for something more than a 2:1 and a beaten liver.
If degrees aren’t necessarily a key for the doors into the publishing industry for one, perhaps more of us will consider why we came to university in the first place. It’s a shame that university has become a financial transaction; we pay a hefty fee and justifiably expect financial reward at the end. In this process of the commercialisation we’ve lost sight of a lot of the pleasure of university.
The decision to come to university shouldn’t have to be one based entirely on financial reward or return, although this is inevitably the case for those who can’t afford to decide to go to university because they fancy reading for four years. For those who have the luxury of this choice, there’s an argument to be made that the removal of the degree requirement for the publishing industry will force them to take pleasure in their subject and carefully choose a degree they genuinely care about. For those who don’t have that luxury, the removal of the degree requirement will open doors to them which they could not previously afford the key to.
Students and graduates will perhaps have to get used to the fact that their degrees aren’t as special as they once thought. Although this may be a bitter pill to swallow for some of us, I included, it’s a necessary medicine to level the playing field and for this we ought to applaud Penguin Random House. Their progressive policy recognises the value of vocational skills and will in time, rewrite the story of the publishing industry.