On GCSE results day: The great university con trick
A young relative of mine, now 26, got three As at A level (as well as being an accomplished musician) and embarked on an English degree at a good university because English Literature was her greatest love. But it was the wrong course and included a lot of linguistics. So she left after one term. The following year she started an English Literature course at Kings College London but didn’t care for that either. By then the whole university package had come to seem a bit pointless.
During her gap year, this young woman had worked as a headhunter and continued to work for the same company part-time during her short forays into university. She was clearly very good at that and soon came to realise that she would do much better to develop her career and stop fiddling about with higher education. At 26, she is now doing pretty well. She earns good money, has a great deal of work experience and no student debt to clear.
By coincidence – or perhaps it isn’t – she has lived happily for some time with a very able young man who also rejected university. He works for a private bank and seems to be well thought of and highly paid.
Or take Bryony Gordon. Respected and talented Daily Telegraph journalist now in her early thirties, she tried university too. She quickly, and quite publicly, recognised that it wasn’t for her. Offered a job at the Telegraph while still in her teens, she has been there ever since.
At this time of year tens of thousands of excited young people are busy packing kettles and ironing boards ready for next term. Others are desperately scrambling through Clearing in the hope that they might, just might, get a place to study something – anything – in a higher education institution a long way from home even if it’s only Horology with Romanian at the University of NeverHeardOfIt.
And for what? An eventual debt of close on £50.000 by the time you’ve paid for subsistence on top of tuition fees? Yes, I know that nothing has to be paid upfront (except bed and board) and that you don’t have to start repaying your tuition fees until you’re earning £21,000 a year, but it is still a pretty off-putting prospect. Many thoughtful potential students, and their cautious parents – understandably – find it a daunting prospect.
Of course, it you are determined on a very specific career such as medicine, architecture or acting then you need the vocational training which you can get only in a university or other higher education institution. Anyone hungrily desperate to study a subject should be encouraged to go too. But if you don’t know what sort of career you want or you’re not particularly committed, I contend that drifting into university as a rite of passage, because it’s what everyone else is doing, could be a serious mistake.
A standard BA takes three years – although most degrees could be done in much less. That is quite a large chunk of your life to give up, at a crucial time in your development, when you could be earning money, learning about the ways of the world and growing up.
Did I mention growing up? For many students the university experience seems to be an infantilising process. The institutions market themselves on hedonism – bars, clubs and the good time life away form the constraints of home. Given that the average contact or teaching time for undergraduates is just a handful of hours a week and that very little in school has prepared them for independent learning, is it any wonder that so many students just can’t cope? Large numbers of them drink (expensively) to great excess, take long lie-ins and generally seem to make very poor use of the time and opportunities on offer.
Drama school students, in contrast, tend to be very focused and students have classes all day. A Manchester Theatre School student recently told me, incredulously, that the university students he shares accommodation with are usually still in night clothes if he pops back at lunchtime and that they seem to be required to do almost no work.
Unsurprisingly, at the end of the process, such students typically ‘graduate’ with mediocre, often obscure, degrees and find themselves unemployable. Many then end up doing low level jobs, in – for example – retail. If they’d done that at 18, some would – three years later – have been promoted, undertaken management training and have a career path. They would also have had three years of earning money, developed some maturity and acquired responsible attitudes. Above all there would be no student debt.
University is simply not suitable for everyone. And it was utterly immoral ever to suggest otherwise – as successive governments did in the 1990s and beyond when they tried to coax more and more hapless youngsters into ‘uni’ as a way of keeping them out of the unemployment statistics.
I’d like to see many more young school leavers finding the courage to reject the whole university con and many more companies offering decent opportunities with prospects to keen 18 year olds.
Not that life’s opportunities begin and end at age 18. If anyone later discovers he or she really would like to study a subject in depth, then the Open University is waiting in the wings. I did my first degree – with the OU – between the ages of 36 and 42, by which time I had all the maturity needed to do the thing properly with (almost) booze-free adult commitment. And it really was developmental.Tagged in: A-levels, clearing, degree, education, gcses, Higher Education, Results day, school, student debt, tuition fees, university
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