Monday, 19 September 2011

Who should go to university?

The simple answer to this question is this: those who are well enough qualified to go, and who have the motivation and drive to enable them to succeed in their chosen course.

But that's a bit glib, and leaves aside some important points that crop up frequently in discussions about whether or not to go to university (and why), what to do there, and how to make the best of the university experience. So let me take these points in turn and offer a few comments, based on the experiences of family and friends, as well on my own experience of advising students over many years.

Whether to go (and why)
This is really the key question, I think. These days it seems to be a standard assumption that anyone able to obtain the necessary grades in various school subjects should proceed to university, and the Government has certainly wanted to raise the share of young people going there. For those young people who know what they want to do, have the ability and qualifications, and who are well motivated, I'm sure that moving on to university is a great idea.

For many others who get the grades but are really quite unsure what they ultimately want to do, I'm not so convinced. They might be better off working for a while, perhaps taking professional qualifications while doing so. Sometimes, working can mean virtually any job - and some work experience is always better than none; but it can also mean finding work closely related to one or other of the subjects that a young person has already studied, which helps him or her to assess whether it really is what they might like to do in the longer term.

It's also tempting to suggest a gap year of some sort, but the snag with that (aside from its likely cost), is that it merely delays important decisions without doing anything to clarify options and hence help the decision-making process. No doubt it's often fine, however, for a young person already clear about where they are heading, educationally.

The worst option of all, faced with indecision, is to laze around doing nothing at all, perhaps hoping for some inspiration to pop up from somewhere. Sometimes it might, but mostly, I suspect, it won't. Hence time is wasted, and since we only get to live our lives once, that's a terrible shame.

It seems to me there are two good reasons for going to university: (a) you're good at something and want to pursue it further (and hope that it might lead to a job at the end); or (b) you want to make yourself more employable and there are courses you could take to achieve that (and hopefully they are subjects you like and are reasonably good at). No one should go just because family and friends tell them that they should.

What to do there
Once there, what do you do?

Obviously, the main thing is to pursue the degree programme that you applied to do. Two points here - first, lots of universities provide for some flexibility, making it possible to change what you are doing if you realise that your first choice was a mistake; or you fail parts of the course; or, more positively, you realise you like something else even more.

The second point - take care over your choice of subject/course in the first place. After all, it's something that will take up three years of your life (usually four in Scotland, and in a few English universities), so it really helps if it's something you like and are good at. You may have in mind future career options, and it's always sensible to think about these, but it's not smart to torture yourself doing a degree you don't like, based on the idea that good jobs lie ahead. For what makes you think you'll like doing the subject as part of a job any more than you did as a student? So think carefully about what you do.

How to make the best of it
Here I can only reiterate points made in previous posts, namely that university is not only about studying (which reminds me of a couple of students I knew some years ago who were bright but performing badly - they were really amazed when I pointed out to them that they needed to do more than one or two hours of studying per week, in addition to lectures!). Universities offer diverse social activities, sports clubs, all sorts of other clubs, travel opportunities, and so on. So by the time you graduate, you can not only feel educated, but also hugely enriched as a person, ready to embark on the adventurous world of work.

1 comment:

  1. I think it is great advice (and similar advice to what I offer on my website, so I would say that) to suggest that if you don't know what to do then it might be worth working or taking a 'year out' to learn a skill, or more about yourself. It can be done more affordably if you decide to find work abroad (kill 2 birds with 1 stone).
    I feel that while university is great for the social activities, sports clubs etc that it is an expensive club to join at £8500 (average) and is probably only worthwhile for jobs that require a degree. I think more companies should recruit straight from school as we are getting to a stage where we almost need another tier above universities do differentiate students further.