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Why go to university?

In this week’s Bryanston Blog, our former Head of Sixth Form Ian McClary considers the reasons for going to university.

According to a report published in July last year by Universities UK, a university education is a powerful tool for social mobility and economic empowerment. Yet, on the other hand, there is also research pointing to rising rates of mental ill health among students who feel overwhelmed by debt and the rising cost of living. A recent study by the Sutton Trust also estimated that graduate debt in England is higher on average than any other English-speaking country. 

And so, faced with such a financial burden, with more people than ever before proceeding to full-time higher education, perhaps we should ask the question: why go to university? 

Many talk about the value of the university experience, but what exactly do they mean? Is it the process of rigorous academic endeavour, leading to a mark of intellectual distinction being bestowed on the individual in the form of a BA or a BSc? There are those who would argue that the sheer number of degrees being awarded these days, not to mention the proliferation of lightweight or ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, has devalued that currency. 

Others might define the university experience more in terms of working out who you are, what you want, what you believe in, what your place in society is and could be, whilst also studying something you enjoy, find interesting or which is even, perhaps, relevant to intended future employment. But then, you don’t have to go to university and generate a large amount of debt in order to do this. And we’ve all heard of those for whom university was just a three-year-long party and a way of avoiding the inevitable question: what am I going to do when I grow up? 

Others, still, might say that university is the new sixth form. In ‘the olden days’ the sixth form used to be about more freedom, time to explore and specialise, having more time for extra-curricular pursuits. Not so much nowadays. With the advent of league tables and the inevitable grades arms race, many schools have increasingly directed and regimented sixth formers’ time, facilitating a frantic scramble for places at universities marketing themselves as elite. The sixth form, sadly, can become all about getting the grades (two of which, if they are doing A levels, usually being a means to an end) to get them into a ‘good’ university, deferring the freedom, the exploration and the breadth that the sixth form should also have. 

And so, when young people get to university, it can often be a shock to the system. Not only might they not really know what university is for, they also don’t know how to be independent, take ownership of and direct their learning, or manage their time and set priorities, because their schools had continued to do that for them. Thankfully, at Bryanston, the emphasis has always been on coaching rather than drilling and it is reassuring to hear OBs reporting time and again that they made the transition to university life very smoothly because they found Bryanston, and its sixth form in particular, such a good preparation for it. 

Nevertheless, it appears to me that a lot of young people, Bryanstonians included, tend to see university as simply what comes next, rather than thinking about what it should be for them and what they need (and want) to get out of it. They won’t be told exactly what to do. Their university experience will, for the most part, be what they make it. If it’s not going to provide (or they are not going to engage with) intellectual and academic rigour, what’s the point? If they are going to distract themselves constantly and waste opportunities to understand themselves better and the world around them, what’s the point? If they are going to do the bare minimum, underachieve and leave without the skills and experiences which will help to future proof them, what’s the point? A degree is not a free pass to a better life. It never was, despite what statistics will say about employability and earnings potential. But as many of us know, it can be one of the most formative and enriching experiences of one’s life. 

We need to be asking young people “Why go to university?” Essentially, it is about finding the right path for the individual. As teachers, advisers and parents we should spend as much time helping our young people to understand that university isn’t just what comes next, as we do helping them decide what to study; encouraging them to explore alternatives to the traditional, full-time undergraduate degree experience: living at home, part-time study, apprenticeships, the Open University, combined with whatever work experience/internships they can access in order to demonstrate a wider range of academic, professional and personal skills. 

Whichever route they decide on, it is important to realise that for the next three (or more) years they will make their own university/apprenticeship/work experience, regardless of what they have to pay, and that they will surely get out as much, and no more, as they put in.