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Michael Spence Column for Disagreeing Well: Seriously, why are you graduating on time?

To hear someone is on track with their progression understandably leaves the impression they’ve found nothing better to do.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most perilous (and undodgeable) question to be asked as an undergraduate is that of which school (assume high school) you attended. It’s a conversational crutch as old as the University itself which either kills any possibility of connection by quickly establishing you come from different backgrounds and may as well be asking for directions back into your comfort zone, or leads down an inevitable path of the mutual friend game which inspires no one. A more thoughtful column interrogating the cultural weight we put on that question will have to wait for another edition, and be written by a writer who didn’t actually attend one of those schools. Instead, I want to interrogate another question set entirely. More specifically, the question of when people graduate from University. And even more specifically, the kind of person who takes a bit too much glee in asking and answering it because they, of course, are entirely on track with their degree plan. This column will disabuse us of a propaganda model, argue in favour of shifting conversational norms, and then offer up my personal belief that it is downright embarrassing, and indeed a sign of failure, to be graduating on time. 

First, let’s stick it to the man. Unless this happens to be the first edition of Honi you’ve opened, it won’t be news to you to hear that the corporatisation of higher education has been happening for some time. Students are now both the consumers and the product. The sun seems to be setting on the days of classrooms being fertile ground for discovering passion or contributing to a wider sense of public knowledge and citizenship. Course offerings have been cut, public money and funding models have been reallocated, and the University has been redesigned to optimise for an efficient output of ‘Job-Ready Graduates’. And even more so, the time usually given for new generations to gather values and actualise visions, has become compressed. Youth culture is now work culture, or even more precariously, hustle culture. We are now told that the only degrees worth pursuing are those with a clear fit in the economy, and we ought to adjust and commit our study plans accordingly. And those delivering this message, with a business in marketing and selling us off as products, are Universities. Campus leisure and community, the formative aspects to one’s personal, political and playful identity, are seeing less and less investment from management — and consequently from ourselves. The time we have on campus ought to be spent working, or preparing for work. What is worthwhile is to become productive and do it quickly. To internalise and accept this notion, or at least do so uncritically, is one I’d advise against. 

Second, what are your legitimate reasons for graduating on time!? There are many reasons study loads get shifted, be it caring responsibilities, mental health, employment, etc. Yet somehow, the prevailing norms put the onus on students to be forthcoming about these, offering them up to us as if we are to assess whether these ‘excuses’ are justifiable when, frankly, they aren’t any of our business. What is our business, however, are the tragic lack of circumstances that have led a plain progressor to be so untouched by luck, inspiration or distraction that a one-size-fits-all study planner handed out en-masse to barely-adult go-getters by University bureaucracy is still sitting on their walls, and complied with, so many years on. And what is more, is recognising an opportunity to acknowledge and fill that space in conversation.

Third, and more fervently, a quick tree-ring check of my calcified brain brings up course cuts, a pandemic, outbreaks of war and a flurry of natural disasters as recent intensives on the rollsheet of my time at University. But forget these collective setbacks, I hope there have been chances to move things around in realisations of what you find to be important. Dare your life not be so ordinary, so undisturbed by inconvenience or so unblessed by opportunity, that you found nothing worth readjusting a plan someone else made for you? 

Coming of age in a time of change, and you havent changed, anything? 

To hear someone is on track with their progression understandably leaves the impression they’ve found nothing better to do. In all this time, have they made no other plan or, even worse, this was this plan? I have questions, and they better have answers. Seriously, why the fuck ARE you graduating on time? Has something gone wrong, or rather, has nothing gone right?