Press-ganged into prestige

Laura Castree examines the increasing commercialisation of ‘prestigious’ degrees.


As my first year at Exeter drew to a close, I found myself in the rather unfortunate position of having lost all faith in the ‘prestigious’ half of my degree. After months of unease, it finally dawned on me that my oldest love should, perhaps, have remained just that. English literature, my constant, unfailing companion seemed, at degree level, to have turned its back on me.

Today, it seems that capitalising anything makes it worthy of study. With the offer of Puppetry (BAHons, Central School of Speech and Drama, London), Surf Science (BSc, Plymouth University) and Furniture (BAHons, Buckingham University), it is easy to understand why the ‘degree’ itself has lost much of its gravity. We, as students of a Russell Group University, surely occupy a plane above all of this nonsense.

I’m not so sure.It seems that in studying such prestigious subjects as English Literature, we actually subscribe to another bizarre value system, whereby the concept of academic prestige is purchased at high cost and comes in the form of minimal tuition.

If the piece of paper handed to us at the end of our time at university is now endowed with more capitalist sway than intellectual, shouldn’t we as consumers examine what we are actually being given?

As I would imagine is true for many Exeter students, my university choices were heavily influenced by a certain amount of intellectual snobbery. Quite tragically perhaps, the repercussions of this mindset, the result of years of subtle allusions to the ‘value’ of a discipline, are only now becoming apparent.

Put simply, this embittered Oxbridge reject has learned, over a year in a climate which has edged her a little closer to the ‘real world’ , that life does not begin and end with the concept of academic prestige (and really there’s little of that to be gained in 3-4 contact hours per week).

Melodrama aside, the deal breaker for me was the realisation that I was prepared to spend one half of my £3375 a year on 4 hours a week in the Queen’s Building at a time in my financial development when £3 for a block of palatable cheese was a real wrench.

A year on, liberated from the pressure of the qualification treadmill and turned instead towards richness of experience, variety and personal fulfillment as opposed to academic ‘market value’, I’m ready to let go of a subject which has provided endless pleasure, but for me has reached the end of its academic shelf life.

Having thrown myself wholeheartedly into BA Classical Studies and English for a year, I can honestly say that this is far from the outcome I would ever have anticipated. I can only speak on behalf of myself, but I know that thanks to the Classics department I have developed and honed more skills, engaged wholeheartedly with more people and been encouraged to focus on my own views and future more than my English studies could ever rival.

When I accepted this fact, and believe me it took time, the part of me which spent first year looking towards the rest of my life was finally able to overcome the former mindset which told me that quitting a course that I’d chosen at the most stressful junction of my life so far made me a failure. I’ve realised that while it’s easy for us to poke fun at those chasing their dream of a career in Golf Management, we shouldn’t forget that we are part of our own ‘prestigious’ conspiracy.