An optional information session at the Jobcentre

I rediscovered this angry blog post I wrote in summer 2013, a month or so after graduating and a week or two before I got my job at Trinity Mirror.

A few weeks ago, I received some amazing news from the Jobcentre. I know with that one sentence I’ve probably already lost anyone with experience of signing on, but hear me out.

My advisor was going to put my name forward for a new initiative - intended to help unemployed graduates find work. A lucky few of us were going to be offered the chance to complete a masters level course at Birmingham City University specifically designed to improve our employability. Unsurprisingly, I was pretty excited. Anyone who has considered postgraduate study in the UK knows that a funded masters isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes along very often. It sounded almost too good to be true.

A couple of weeks later I received a text telling me I’d been invited to an information session about the course. Over the following days I tried to find out as much as possible. I tweeted to see if any of my followers had been offered something similar. I rang up Birmingham City University to enquire about who was providing the funding and how it would work. I asked every Jobcentre employee I encountered if they could give me any more details. Nobody seemed to know anything.

Finally, the day came around. I arrived 15 minutes early feeling on top of the world and chatted to other attendees about what we’d been told. Most people seemed to be as ill-informed as I was. After a while a member of staff came across and herded about twenty of us into an upstairs room. One guy had turned up in a suit and tie, clearly determined not to blow his shot at such an incredible opportunity. We all sat quietly, on our best behaviour, politely passing around a clipboard to write down our names and contact details.

A few minutes later, Professor M strode through the door. He launched into an elaborate introduction, telling us about his career history, his illustrious achievements, and his truly remarkable personal characteristics. Apparently, he had been hand-picked by Birmingham City University to help found a new department within the Business School, gathering together people from across the country who thought in a special and innovative way. The longer he spoke, the more doubtful I became.

A full half an hour passed without any mention of, to my mind, the most important issue of all: funding. Apart from Professor M, and a couple of Jobcentre staff stood over in the corner, every person in the room was there because they were claiming £56.80 a week in Jobseekers Allowance. Maybe there were a couple of lucky over 25s in receipt of £71.70. Regardless, there were three things which united us all:

  • we had degrees
  • we didn’t have jobs
  • we were skint.

Eventually Professor M brought his presentation to an end. I felt slightly dazed, like I’d been on the receiving end of an intense, highly-skilled sales pitch. If he’d been selling timeshares, I don’t doubt that several people in the room would have suddenly discovered a strong desire to part-own a condominium in Florida. Not that we could have afforded it, of course.

I raised my hand. “So, what about funding?” I asked.

“Ah, that’s a very good question!” replied Professor M.

Oh no, I thought.

“How much do you think a masters course normally costs?”

The answer, it transpired, at least for an MSc in Leadership and Organisational Performance from Birmingham City University, was £15,000.

“But, here’s the but,” said Professor M.

Ahhh, here it was! I relaxed. I felt silly for suspecting that the Jobcentre could possibly have tricked us into attending a sales pitch for a course which none of us could reasonably hope to afford. As it turned out, I was sillier for believing that anything else could be the case.

The “but” was that, in the second half of the year, students would complete a six-month work placement paid at roughly minimum wage. They would also go on a week-long trip to California or Florida, which was apparently valued at £1,500.

“So really, when you subtract both those things, it’s only actually costing you £7,500” said Professor M.

“That sounds like a bargain to me, for a masters course,” said the Jobcentre guy in the corner.

Professor M continued explaining how affordable it all was. He told us that we’d only be required to travel to Birmingham for three days a week, and that when he stayed in Birmingham himself he only paid £20 a night for a room at the Travelodge.

I asked several more questions after that. I asked, if we had £15,000 (plus living, travel and hotel expenses) to spare, what would make this course a better bet than interning for free and using some of that money to support ourselves? I asked if there was any evidence his course would improve our prospects more than any of the hundreds of other masters courses on offer, some of which cost considerably less than £15,000. I asked if he realised we were all claiming £56.80 a week in Jobseekers Allowance, and that £56.80 a week was probably all of the money most of us had. I asked if he realised career development loans generally only go up to £10,000 at most, and that unlike undergraduate student loans you are still expected to pay them off however skint you are.

Professor M didn’t have very many answers. Nobody else in the room seemed to have very many questions. “It’s a ridiculous amount of money,” one girl muttered under her breath. A couple of people nodded when I pointed out we probably didn’t have £15,000 between us. Mostly, everyone just sat there silently.

Eventually, the Jobcentre staff decided to bring the session to a close. The woman asked Professor M how we should get in touch with him if we were interested. He said he had our contact details and would send out an email with more information. A pile of glossy brochures was passed around the room.

“Can I claim my bus fare back?” someone asked.

“I’m afraid not,” said the Jobcentre woman. “This was an optional information session and your attendance was not required.”