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.