Was going to university worth it?

Around this time of year I feel pretty smug. I remember getting my A-Level results, 13 years ago, and the prospect of never having to go through that again is wonderful. (And the prospect of not having to through it again by proxy is even better. “Not having to deal with exam results” is one of my many, many reasons for not wanting to have kids.)

13 years ago I was already in possession of a rather dismal D grade AS level in Psychology (back when they were proper AS levels that were the same difficulty as an A Level, just half the syllabus.) I was properly nervous about getting my results, thanks to a combination of making some rather questionable decisions about which A-levels I would do, having a later-than-normal teenage rebellion phase, and realising far too late that maybe I wasn’t quite as clever as I thought I was. I was over the moon to get an A in English Literature, slightly disappointed to get a C in German and absolutely stunned to get an E in Maths – given that I had assumed I had failed that entirely. As per the standard instructions I immediately phoned the University of East Anglia to see if these were good enough to confirm my place on the Philosophy degree course I wanted to do. I think my offer was BBC, which by my calculation I had met in terms of UCAS points, but not in terms of the configurations of results so I was extremely relieved to find out that I had the place I wanted.

At the time, my relief was mostly to do with the fact that my then-boyfriend, a rather older gentleman (well, 27 to my 18) , was living in Norwich, and I was quite exited at the prospect of living in the same town as him. Unsurprisingly this relationship lasted just a few scant weeks into my university career and we mutually called it a day. Fortunately Norwich is large enough that we didn’t keep running in to one another! A mere couple of months after that, I started seeing the man who I would later marry. So much as I despise Boris Johnson for saying it, if I’m honest with myself, I kind of did go to University to find a husband.

There’s a lot of advice swirling about for prospective undergraduates, some of which seems sage, and some of which is utter gubbins. There’s usually some newspaper columnist waxing lyrical on how he/she didn’t go to University, and they did ok. According to some pre-emptive strikes on Twitter, this is usually written by reasonably privileged individuals whose experience of the ‘University of Life’ is probably, to put it kindly, atypical. At the other end of the spectrum there are the college cheerleaders who bang on about how nothing gives you a better start in life than spending 3 years drinking beer, occasionally turning up to class, joining footlights and then getting discovered by Granada television studios. Or how writing a 10,000 word thesis on the legacy of the Great American Novel whilst accumulating a debt which is larger than a small mortgage is a really good idea!

The truth is that most people love talking about their own experience, and most people like to think that this can be extrapolated out to a world view which will be valuable to everyone else.

So, I am speaking purely from my own experience, and don’t expect this to help anyone else out of a dilemma. Was going to University worth it?

I’m a bit embarrassed now to think that at 18 I was more excited about hooking up with my older boyfriend than I was about actually going to university. (In the short period between us breaking up and meeting Terry, I wised up a lot about how relationships, and how stupid it is to utterly define yourself and your future by another person.)

On the other hand, my (current) relationship is one of the best things to come out of my university years. So for that reason alone, yes it was worth it.

University meant getting to mix with a wide range of people. A diverse social circle might not sound like the most important aspect of higher education, but I really think that learning to get on with different kinds of people is one of the most important ‘life skills’ a person can develop. At the ripe old age of 31 I pride myself on being a pretty open-minded kind of women, and I credit that in no small quantity to the fact that I’ve met a wide variety of people. I find intolerance hard to deal with, whether that’s misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism or some other arbitrary dislike of a section of the population. But I often find that the ‘root’ of said intolerance comes from a person who has very little experience of people with whatever characteristic it is they despise, be that people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, attitude to drug taking or hair colour.

I learnt how to look after myself. I went to a boarding school, and I really couldn’t understand my fellow boarders heading off to catered halls of residence. In fact one of the very few absolute stipulations for me was going to a University which had self-catered halls. I already knew how to cook, and had been doing my own laundry for a good few years, so the notion of going somewhere that expected me to relinquish these trappings of independence felt like it would be a huge step back. I know lots of people describe the minutiae of adult life as boring, but I was overjoyed at the prospect that I was getting close to the point where I would pay bills, fill in forms, get a proper (non student) bank account etc. This, I felt, was Growing Up, and I loved it!

I got to spending 3 years learning for its own sake. Although Philosophy is pretty good for transferable skills, it’s not exactly a fast track to a career, like, for instance, computer science. I got to study something I loved, without feeling overly-burdened as to what I would ‘do’ with it when I finished. I feel immensely privileged to have had that opportunity. But having enjoyed this privilege I now feel slightly like I need to justify such wild academic extravagance. At the point that I was getting my A-levels, the concept of a Gap Year was starting to become an object of derision – rich kids bombing around Asia for a few months getting stoned whilst living off their trust funds. (I’m sure that wasn’t the reality for lots of people, but that was the caricature!) In my first proper part time job I had at University, I was surrounded by people who treated my indulgence of doing a non-vocational degree with exactly the same level of contempt as I would exhibit towards those who thought 6 weeks doing shrooms in Bangkok constituted ‘seeing the world.’
And afterwards, when I started searching for full time work I felt that my degree did give me a bit of an edge. I got temp work easily enough, and nailed my job interview at a bank. Having a degree demonstrated I had brains and commitment. Of course perhaps I would have been better off if I hadn’t got that job after all.

So what are the downsides? With more and more graduates entering the jobs market, having a degree is no way guarantees getting a job. I’m inclined to think it probably helps, but I have no evidence for that.

I was in one of the first cohorts to pay tuition fees, but 13 years ago they were a fraction of what they are now. Additionally the grants of yesteryear had gone, and we just had student loans. Which, as it turns out, I am still paying off. University felt like the right choice for me, although I was aware that it was a substantial investment. Of course, compared to now, it was an easy decision. Now, there is so much more to consider.

I can saw with confidence that university was definitely worth it for me, but 13 years later, the landscape has changed. At this time of year there’s no shortage of commentary suggesting that the University experience is not all it’s cracked up to be. That may or may not be the case. The point is that it’s different for everyone. You might go to University and spend 3 years following a course which doesn’t interest you, because you felt it was what was expected of you. You might skip higher education and get an apprenticeship which leads you to the career of your dreams. Or you might not. But part of growing up means making that decision for yourself.

Is the new Marmite advert really the most important thing happening right now?

I don’t want to be the kind of person who thinks that other people are stupid. That would be arrogant, elitist and wrong. But sometimes, it’s really hard not to! There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed a lot in the past few months, which I keep meaning to blog about but never got around to it.

At this moment in time, lots of really important things are going on in the world. The below is a selection of things I’m aware are happening now, based entirely on my own biased preferences as to what news items will grab my attention, and what the equally biased ‘meeja’ will have chosen to tell me about in the first place:

1) Edward Snowdon has been granted political asylum in Russia, prompting the cancellation of a planned meeting between Obama and Putin.

2) Nairobi airport was on fire, which could have a potentially catastrophic effect on trade and tourism for vast swathes of East Africa.

3) As conditions for the LGBT community in Russia worsen, the debate heats up about the best form of political protest against the upcoming sporting events to be hosted there.

4) A 3rd person has been arrested in connection with increasingly violent threats made on twitter, while there are reports that Jo Smith (the sister of the teenager Hannah Smith who tragically committed suicide, apparently as a result of online bullying) is now facing similar ‘trolling’.

5) Seven people, alleged to be members of al-Qaida, have been killed in Yemen by a US drone, following reports from US intelligence claiming ‘chatter’ had reached pre 9/11 levels.

6) The shady practice of ‘zero-hours’ contracts is facing further scrutiny as research indicates the true number of people employed under these contracts could be much higher than the official government figure.

7) Someone in UKIP said something racist.

However in spite of the availability of reasonably up to date coverage of each of the above stories, at 15.23 this afternoon, the ‘most read’ article on the BBC website was regarding the number of complaints about the latest Marmite advert.


I cannot speak to the veracity of the data which indicates what is ‘most read’ at any given time, but if true this is both rather depressing, but somehow also not that surprising. Perhaps it’s because these daft little ‘human interest’ stories are easier to understand than news items which involve complex geo-politics. Perhaps it’s because ‘proper’ news is generally so depressing. Perhaps I have massively underestimated the cultural significance of Marmite. But when people talk about a lack of political engagement, I can’t help but feel that this is relevant.

So, if anyone has the time to conduct some proper research in this area, that would be swell!

Diversity and the Last of the Time Lords

I’m over the moon that Peter Capaldi is going to play the next Doctor. I think he’s a terrific actor, he is clearly as dedicated a Whovian as one could hope to meet, and I bet no one can possibly be putting him under more pressure to do a good job than himself right now.

The announcement last night, in a rather hastily put together live show, demonstrated how big of a deal the casting of this particular role has become. The hype surrounding the show has steadily increased since Russell T Davies breathed new life into the TARDIS back in 2005. And with such hype comes commentary. And with commentary comes meta-commentary, which is my area of expertise.

At the fore of the discussion on the identity of the actor who will next play this most iconic of TV characters is the plea that the part should go to a non-white male. I’ve heard this a lot recently. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, a host of different names were mooted as possibilities, among them Idris Elba, Chitowel Eijofer, David Harewood, Billie Piper, Olivia Coleman and Helen Mirren. This morning, a friend of mine tweeted that she heard someone say the following:

“I wish it had been a woman or a black guy.”

I have so many feelings swirling around my head about this it’s hard to pin them all down. But some things did immediately spring to mind. Of the actors listed above, some are women and some are black guys. None are both. Surely if ever there was a time to employ the term ‘and/or’ it would be now. If we also factor in the precedent for casting previous supporting players, how come there wasn’t a big call for Sophie Okonedo (Liz 10 in The Beast Below), Christine Adams (Cathica in The Long Game) or Yasmin Bannerman (Jabe in The End of the World) to play The Doctor? (Or was there a campaign which I missed?) And what about non-white, non-black actors? I’m not sure how much of this is a historic hangover, but those of African-Caribbean descent often seem to be the poster-children for issues of diversity at the expense of the Asian and Hispanic communities. I know she’s busy on The Good Wife right now but I reckon Archie Panjabi would do a stonking job as The Doctor. (With Omid Djalili as her companion. They would make a cracking ‘odd couple.’)

One the one hand, diversity is usually regarded as a Good Thing. It connotes inclusivity, a variety of perspectives, a sense that ‘normal’ is not defined by any one sex or ethnicity or religion or orientation. On the other hand tokenism is usually regarded as a Bad Thing. It connotes misrepresentation and a patronising attitude to a particular group. Treading the line between these two can be very difficult indeed, particularly when combined with issues of creativity and artistic license.

Compare and contrast: the lack of diversity in ‘Friends’ (set in New York City) with the lack of diversity in ‘Midsomer Murders’ (set in rural Oxfordshire.) New York City is a very diverse geographical area, and towards the end of its 10 year run, Friends was starting to come under fire for its overwhelmingly ‘Whitebread’ depiction of NYC. On the other hand, rural Oxfordshire is, as a matter of fact, predominantly Caucasian, and so would the inclusion of characters from ethnic minorities be a crass attempt to shoehorn in an unrealistic sense of diversity? (This is of course setting aside the boneheaded remarks made by the writer about the last bastion of Englishness.) It seems to me that the crucial difference between these two examples is representation. Artistically depicting somewhere real but omitting its ethnic variation seems, well, not to put too fine a point on it, like whitewashing.

As a matter of opinion, I think that Doctor Who creates ethnically diverse landscapes very well. Which makes sense, given that it’s a show about the past, present & future of this and many other planets. So it’s right that characters should be depicted who are white and black and brown. And green and blue and red. And it’s not as if this kaleidoscope is restricted to the extras either. Looking back over the 7 series of the main show (plus specials), 4 series of the spin off Torchwood, and 5 series of the spin off The Sarah Jane adventures, the supporting characters show a terrific range of sexes, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in each show. In fact I’d be hard pressed to come up with another TV universe which has embraced the range of humanity experience so fully. Although I’m sure that there are groups that might feel differently. (Off the top of my head, I’m not sure of the extent to which non-able bodied people are depicted.)

So, for the 12th time in a row, a white male has been cast as the main protagonist. Is this a missed opportunity? Perhaps. Moffat made it clear that he is open to the idea of a non-white male doctor. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse from the point of view of those who think this is a missed opportunity. If the Doctor could have been female, does that mean that she should have been? Do the arts have a responsibility to push an inclusive agenda, or is that agenda served better by maintaining the ‘integrity’ (whatever that means) of casting whoever the producer’s feel will do the best job, irrespective of their sex, age or ethnicity?

I think my feeling is that while I can understand the disappointment of those who feel Capaldi’s casting is a missed opportunity, I can’t share in it. I think that given the show’s (in my opinion) generally good history of casting a range of actors, it’s more important for them to focus on what they do with those characters. For instance if Hispanic actors were only ever cast as villains I think I would see that as more offensive than simply not casting them in the first place.

In fact there was just one comment in the Guardian which actually made me feel quite upset on this subject:
“Given the rules of regeneration theoretically permit the Doctor to become anyone, many may regret there has been no change of race or gender – although, following recent concern over misogynist attacks online, female actors may be relieved to have avoided becoming a test case for the limits of Twitter tolerance by feminising a famously boy-centred franchise.”

The notion that marginalised female actors might feel relief that now at least they won’t have to put up with rape and bomb threats is offensive and abhorrent. Although for the avoidance of doubt I am absolutely not lambasting Mark Lawson for raising this as he is making a subtle point about a difficult subject, and kudos to him for that. For although I hate the idea, there is a possibility that he may be right, which I hate far more. As a feminist I find that idea far more damaging than Peter Capaldi getting the role of a lifetime.