University degrees: why it’s time to stop shaming people over their education

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Hollie Richardson
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University shaming.

The recent online debate about “Mickey Mouse” degrees has exposed a much bigger problem about our society, says Stylist’s Hollie Richardson. 

“Which university did you go to?” was a question I hated being asked throughout my 20s. 

“Leeds,” I’d reply, knowing the colleague or new acquaintance asking would assume I meant the city’s Russell Group institution. But, unable to commit to a lie, I’d quickly clarify that I went to the lesser-reputable Leeds Metropolitan University. 

“I fluffed up my A-levels, you see,” I always laughed, thinking I owed an explanation. I’d then steer the conversation in a different direction before they had a chance to react.

My mind would flash back to the old school ‘friend’ who I’d bumped into one time in Leeds city centre: she visibly winced when I told her where I studied. 

My third-year housemates, who all went to the renowned red brick, also didn’t hide their snobbery. But I’d go along with the joke about going to a ‘bad’ uni, delivering my own punchlines before they did it for me. 

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Looking back now, I’m so angry that I felt like that. I’ve always been too worried to speak out about it; nervous about looking like I have a chip on my shoulder over other people having ‘better’ educations than me.

But the recent A-levels results fiasco – along with an online debate over the value of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees – has forced me to examine the problem that our society has with shaming people over their education. Especially when we live in a system designed to dictate a person’s education based on their background. 

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Media Studies had been my favourite A-level subject: my teacher taught us about the reporting of the cases of Madeleine McCann and Shannon Matthews. I was outraged that working-class people – like my single parent low-income family – were treated with such contempt in the media. Stories like this were why I wanted to become a writer. 

I grew up under Tony Blair’s New Labour: a government that wanted half of all young people to go on to higher education. But I didn’t even have a family member who’d been to uni. It hadn’t been an option in my mind until friends excitedly started ordering prospectuses in sixth-form. 

I had no idea that there was such a thing as a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uni (apart from Oxbridge, of course). I just knew I should go study somewhere, because great things would apparently happen. And I found out that student loans and grants would cover the costs. So I briefly spoke with a careers advisor at school, and chose to study Journalism somewhere local. 

women graduate with degree
"Perhaps, actually, degree subjects like Media Studies – a critical analysis of the digital, media-ruled world we live in – attained at more diverse universities, are exactly what we need right now."

But, working through my degree, I started to learn more about the world and make sense of it. I hadn’t chosen the right A-levels, I was studying at a bottom league institute, I was trying to break into an industry where 51% of journalists are part of the 6.5% of the nation who receive private education. My confidence dropped to zero.

As I embarked on my career, I felt inferior because of my education. Most of my peers had gained an English degree, worked unpaid internships in London for a year, and paid for a Master’s degree in Journalism. 

I spent a lot of time questioning my future, comparing myself to people I assumed were smarter and better – just because of the degree they held. Many of them were and are undoubtedly talented and bright. But I failed to recognise I had my own untold perspectives, unique strengths and tenacity that comes with always playing catch-up. 

I’ve come to learn that my anger isn’t directed at individuals; it’s at the system that continues to ensure some people will always go further and faster in life simply because of the circumstances they were born into. As long as private schools exist, there will always be a divide, and the A-level results have just proved this

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Perhaps, actually, degree subjects like Media Studies – a critical analysis of the digital, big media-ruled world we live in – attained at more diverse universities, are exactly what we need right now. 

Because, here are the facts: on average 44% of politicians attended independent schools, with 19% of MPs holding an Oxbridge degree.

Last year, the proportion of Russell Group students educated at state schools fell. In fact, at the Royal College of Music, the proportion of state school pupils was as low as 31.1%

According to a 2019 report by social mobility group The Sutton Trust, Oxbridge graduates make up around a quarter of the UK’s elite, while Russell Group graduates make up almost half of the elite group. 

I’m sure you can see the pattern. 

How can people think they are seen or heard with such a narrow representation at the top? Surely, shaming people over trying to learn more about the world in the best way they can will only prevent change?

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New voices need to be amplified more than ever, and we need to encourage them to speak, rather than discourage and diminish their value based on outdated views on what a degree subject or university place says about your ability and intelligence.

I’m now proud I went to Leeds Met and studied a degree for the enjoyment rather than the prestige. I’m glad because here I am, writing for the magazine I remember picking up for the first time on my way to lectures. I hope another young woman in a similar position reads this and realises that you should be proud of whatever you have achieved in the face of an incompetent government, an outrageously unfair system and a classist society. 

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…