The Squire Law Library is home to many of the so-called 'sell-outs'Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

The University of Cambridge is known for its jargon. Its students cook in gyps and eat in butteries; we matriculate in Michaelmas and graduate after May Week, which infamously takes place in June. Delve into the processes of University governance and things get even weirder – did you know that it is the job of the Registrary to attend all Congregations of the Regent House?

Usually, I find this facet of Cambridge life charming. Recently, however, I have noticed my friends adopting a phrase I simply cannot tolerate – when did getting a job become synonymous with ‘selling out’?

“The concept of selling out is underpinned by the knee-jerk anticapitalism which the humanities treat as axiomatic”

Well, not every job. The creative industries are fine, naturally, as is most of the media (the Daily Mail notwithstanding). Academia, of course, is the Platonic form of not selling out. But if you work 9-5 in an office, in marketing or recruitment, or, worst of all, consultancy? Sorry – you’re a sell-out.

This is both inevitable and very weird. It is weird because our entire higher education system is predicated on the idea that getting a degree is a passport to middle class prosperity. That is why the government spends billions of pounds a year subsidising higher education – and why most students fund their degrees through loans. Education is supposed to be an investment.

It is inevitable because this economic view runs counter to the story that the academy tells itself about itself. Most humanities academics would rather die than say that the point of their lectures is to make attendees more employable. Rather, they would insist that the study of mediaeval history or Pope’s poetry or Virgil is intrinsically worthwhile. This is why the ‘panic master’s’ is the classic alternative to selling out – more learning is always a safe and respectable option.

Yet, as I have suggested, not everyone who leaves Cambridge and never looks back is a sell-out. The concept of selling out is underpinned by the knee-jerk anticapitalism which the humanities treat as axiomatic. It is not just the idea that education is a means to an end which is seen as a betrayal – the very idea of pursuing financial success is regarded as borderline immoral. The opposite is the case. It is selfish for students who could become white collar professionals to choose their own ‘fulfilment’ over making a meaningful contribution to society.

“Education is supposed to be an investment”

Now I know what you are thinking. “How do consultants, marketing executives, and bankers contribute to society?” The answer is by paying taxes and spending their money. This country is built on the backs of graduates working white-collar jobs for good wages. They pay for the NHS, for schools, for benefits. Without them the UK would not be a rich country.

The statistics bear this out. In the 2020/21 financial year, the richest 10% of the country by income paid more tax than the other 90%. The top 1% by income paid three times more tax than the bottom 50%. If you are the sort of left-leaning student who complains about the government not spending enough on supporting vulnerable people, the best thing you can do to help is get a really good job, earn loads of money, and let the government spend it on helping them.

Taxation data are only the most direct indicator of how the well-paid jobs upon which my fellow Englings heap scorn are economically essential. In addition to funding public services out of their wages, white collar professionals use their higher-than-average incomes to purchase goods and services, creating jobs and supporting businesses. They also generate revenue for their employers, supporting even more economic activity. You just have to visit the City to see that this is true – all those skyscrapers were paid for by corporate sell-outs.

“The office job is the bedrock of our economy”

The other side of all this, of course, is that for some students – myself probably included – ‘selling out’ is less about morality and more about admitting defeat. Cambridge students are, infamously, ambitious. For many of us, getting a solid white collar job is not good enough. We secretly or not so secretly yearn for jobs which are exciting, prestigious, or creative. Deep down, every Engling wants to be an author, every Union hack an MP, and every Varsity writer a ‘real’ journalist. Against this backdrop, getting a job in advertising means giving up on your dream.


Mountain View

You can’t condemn consultancy if you don’t know what it is

This is a more defensible approach to the concept of ‘selling out’, but I still don’t think it’s right. Ambition is all very well, but thinking of yourself as too good for a ‘normal’ job is pure snobbery. Students shouldn’t be thinking of solid white collar jobs as a capitalist betrayal of academic principles, or as an admission of defeat. The office job is the bedrock of our economy. Treating it with suspicion is a sure sign that you live in an ivory tower. Regarding it as a failure means that Cambridge has destroyed your ability to recognise success.