Sunday, 21 October 2012

University, is it really worth £9000?

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Who said growing up was easy?

Choosing what you're going to do after school is a massive deal for anyone currently going through sixth form as teachers give endless pros and cons to this university and that university, this course and that course and the (seemingly small) figures of the possibility of getting a job at the end of spending £9000+ a year during 3/4 (plus the rest) years. 

I have come from a background where going to university is the norm. Had I turned round at the end of 13 years of education and said that I was considering 'sacking' off university, I think my parents probably would have despaired and wondered exactly where they had gone wrong. This isn't to say that by not going to university, you're going to end up working at McDonald's with very little prospects, on the contrary, I believe people with 'real world experience' actually can do a lot better than students who leave university with a 2:1 degree and absolutely no concept of a 9 - 5 working week but in my family, there was never any 'so what are you going to do after school?', it was more 'so which university are you going to go to?' 

However, the value of university education has been put to the test recently. I left school in the summer of 2011 and whilst applying for deferred entry to UK universities, the news came that the fees would be rising to £9000 as of 2012 - a.k.a the year I was planning on going to university. Suddenly, rather than choosing a university in a city that I liked and a course that I thought I would vaguely enjoy, I started to really think about the value of a degree and whether just doing a course that interested me would end up being worth the possible £50 000 of debt.

And it's not just the debt. Once you leave university, you then have to find a job and unless the economic climate increases tenfold in the next 3/4 years, it is still going to affect us as graduates. The increase in tuition fees and current situation have had a major impact on how sixth formers are now thinking in terms of university, with some deciding to go down the apprenticeship route, some deciding to look at options abroad and others deciding just to bite the bullet and experience 'the best 3 years of their life' regardless of the various pitfalls they may face in future years.

However, there isn't a right or wrong when it comes to choosing what you're going to do after school. In my final year, I found a lot of people were quite critical of me taking a gap year, especially in light of the fee hike that was going to hit me straight in the face. 'Do I, don't I?' was a recurring theme through the last few months and there were times that, thanks to peer pressure, I really doubted my decision. Things like 'if you take a gap year you're never going to get a job' and 'you'll never go back to education once you've had that taste of freedom' were constant reminders of how others felt about what I was doing. Looking back, I wish I had had the confidence in my own choice - a gap year turned out to be the best year of my life and although I considered taking another gap year or two, education pulled me back - travelling around the world is great but there are other hurdles I want to get over first. 

Apart from learning about different cultures, languages and people, a gap year also allows you to really consider what you want out of life and in turn, what you want out of university. I, personally, do not like making decisions. This was the same at GCSEs - I ended up taking 10, as I couldn't decide on 9, at A Level - I took the International Baccalaureate and did 7 subjects rather than the typical 3/4, and as for university, well I travelled around the world trying to find the answer. But in all fairness, it helped. A gap year meant I could book flights on a whim - one whim meant I ended up in Australia for 2 months - and it meant I could experience another life and not just the one my peers thought I should be pursuing. 

Half way through my gap year and I'd spent a good 4 months in France. And that was it. I was in love with languages. It sounds cheesy but I love how they work, how once you've conquered the basics you realise that languages are not at all connected - at school, you get endless vocabulary but ultimately you can't directly translate any of the words - the way a culture sees the weather, for example, is different to how another culture sees it and their use of language to describe what they see is totally unique. I was talking to a French man the other day and he said something really interesting: the way French and British people see things and use language to describe what they see is totally different. When a English-speaking person speaks French, it is not that you are just speaking a different language but you are also having to see the world in a completely different way. In English, we will describe what we see in its simplest form, whilst the French will interpret it and describe it in relation to how they feel. Even simple phrases such as 's'il vous plait' shows this - in English this literally translates as 'if it pleases you', I mean, can you ever imagine going into a shop and asking for a kilo of potatoes 'if it pleases you'. French is very much related to emotion, whilst English is a no-nonsense language. Learning languages is not just a educational experience but a cultural concept too. 

Arguably though, if you really want to learn languages, the best way is to go to the country and completely immerse yourself. You can learn endless bits of vocabulary and grammar but none of this helps unless you can actually use it in a real life situation. Recently, in a English class, we had a fill-in-the-blanks to do and we ended up talking about 'cubic meters of luggage' which according to my French prof is perfectly acceptable in the UK. I've obviously been living under a rock for the last 19 years of my life as I have never heard this phrase. Yes, it's perfectly acceptable on a grammar level and it makes sense if you think about it, but imagine turning up to a Ryanair desk at Luton airport and saying 'oh yes, I have 5 cubic meters of luggage, how much will that cost?' No. The check-in agent would laugh as much as the French check-in lady laughed at me when I tried to pronounce 'Haute-Savoie'. 

So in a round-about way and with several diversions, I feel this really underlines the question - is a university degree really worth £9000? In terms of Medicine and Law, perhaps yes. Both are notoriously difficult in your home country, let alone trying to learn it all in a different language or in a different culture. But for other degrees? Studying abroad could widen your perspectives and by taking up an apprenticeship you will have a much more practical knowledge base, rather than knowing just the theory. 

As with everything however, all 3 options have their pros and cons. Whilst a degree in the UK costs £9000, you will be following a well-trodden route and going for postgraduate jobs, you will be on an even playing field with your fellow peers - the only difference being how much work you all put in. Studying abroad is a cheaper option but it's treading out into the unknown. If you were to go back to the UK and look for postgraduate jobs, how will employers view your degree? Will you have to take an even more expensive Masters in the UK in order to validate your degree? At the same time, you'll probably be word-perfect fluent in at least one other language and have skills that the UK graduates don't possess. And as for an apprenticeship? You will have a foot in the door - most businesses take on apprentices who then work their way up through the company. But what if you get bored? Yes, you have the skills for the work that that company does, but how will another company who does similar work view you? Faced with a graduate at a job interview how will you fare? And what if you want to change course? Applying to a completely different company, how will they view your 3/4 A Levels and your wealth of business experience? But you do have experience and they can count on you to be a hard worker. An apprenticeship also means you avoid student debt, tuition fees and unlike your student friends, you actually have some cold, hard cash to burn. 

In the words of Steve Jobs, who was ultimately one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation, 'Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by the dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.'

And I couldn't agree more. Other people will always have more reasons than you for why you shouldn't do something, but who cares, as long as you are doing something you enjoy. This could include 10 gap years before finally settling down into university, going to some far flung country to complete your degree or deciding that that apprenticeship with McDonald's will really help your CV. Eventually you will be laughing your way to the bank. 

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