University as Both Vehicle to, and Shelter from, the Future

ed-future-dreamDiscourses of education are often centred around notions of investment and the future. Young people are encouraged, as well as threatened, to go further and further into their studies through an ideology of delayed gratification. By “sacrificing” the present and committing time, effort, and in the case of HE, a great deal of borrowed money then you’re in with a chance of great things. Whilst a lottery, the future is kept alive through the promise of possibility. Failure to strive within this forward momentum is depicted throughout schooling as dangerous, degenerative, and against one’s own future interests. Yet even then, education is framed across the life course as salvational and solutional. Adults without a degree may “redeem” themselves later in life; much like aspirational immigrants who “use” education to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”; meanwhile, those already with a degree increasingly consider further, and yet further qualifications, trying to escape a dull or competitive present in the hope of something better.

For the school leavers we have been researching since March 2016 from urban, rural, and regional parts of the UK, the same can be said for those who chose not to go to university. Nearly all those that did not apply framed this as a decision being made “for now” – not ruling it out as an option altogether. This hesitation infers a very conscious awareness of the risks and uncertainties involved in pursuing a future without a degree. Adult success, for these participants, is understood as far from guaranteed. As though life were a game of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?‘, these young people are framing university as a “life line” – if in need. This echoes another analogy of higher education already alluded to, of it being “salvational” and almost religious in character. In this regard, Arum and Roksa’s (2014) study in the U.S. describes a ‘faith’ that is entrusted ‘in education in general, and in a college degree in particular’ (p. 107). Similar ‘beliefs’ in the connection between university and future success have emerged throughout our research; however, such outlooks on the future have been multi-layered and often contradictory.

That is to say, while studying for a degree may sound aspirational and symbolise investment in the future, paradoxically, much of the everyday student culture we have identified could not be more irreverent, spontaneous, and “in the moment”. In universities, we methodologically identified futures being perpetually constructed (see here and here), yet rhetorically, futures were far less discussed than during our research in schools or with those in work. As ethnographically identified as well as self-reported, serious discussion of either personal aspirations or of politics was heavily stigmatised when in group settings (less so individually). Ironically, it often seemed as though avoiding talk, or even thought, about adult responsibility was precisely the privilege that students were paying for. One rural school leaver who went straight into work articulated this point “from the outside”. To her, students are given three to four years of insulation from various uncertainties and daunting decisions – a protection and distancing that she envies.

“When I grow up I want [blank]” – Perhaps the thinking ends there?
This idea of university as a shelter from uncertainty was epitomised by a twenty-four year old Fresher at a university in London. Having completed a two-year apprenticeship, then four-year degree in Engineering, he could see the future going one of two ways: “accepting” a competitive career-track that he had no desire for, or a continued journey of youth culture and personal development through another bachelor’s degree, this time in Music. Theoretically, the extended present and buffer from the future that he has created for himself became clear one Tuesday evening as he nonchalantly gulped beer after beer. Facilitated by the time and space of university, his future horizons for the next three years – including what he does, or doesn’t, have to do on a Tuesday night and Wednesday morning – will no doubt be starkly different (and perhaps more enjoyable) than the professional identity and competitive career that he chose not to pursue.

Going to university in the name of one’s future is therefore a different, though often concurrent, story to going to university to avoid the future. As we develop our arguments for the first article to come out of this urban-rural project – on the theme of uncertainty – the role of institutions in shaping affective experiences of the future, such as exposure or protection, is significant. A previous blog post on school leavers going straight into work touched on how vulnerable they felt in response to the uncertainties of Brexit. Interestingly, and likely not by coincidence, many of those going into higher education were somewhat more ambivalent, with Brexit’s economic implications framed as hypothetical and distant. When studying for a degree, “the future” really can take on an elusive, imaginary sense of “one day, when it happens”; ironically, those not at university, who chose the “non-future” path, appear to be more explicitly involved in the future already.