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University – Would You Do It Again?

Author: Lauren Coleman

Last weekend I was a bridesmaid for the very first person I met at university. I think it’s quite an achievement that this lovely lady is one of my best girls rather than someone I spent three years trying to run away from. With freshers week looming it’s made me feel very nostalgic about my time in higher education.

I went to university because it seemed like a natural step. I detested my Saturday job and the idea of working full time really didn’t appeal. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up – those career profiling exercises drew blanks and said I wasn’t suited to any particular role. I think I met with a career advisor once at school and once at college and other than that can’t recall of any investment into determining my future. I had no self-confidence and the future terrified me so to move on to higher education rather than go out into the big wide world was the easier step to take.
I enjoyed Media Studies and so decided to focus on that. I’m ashamed to say the course was a secondary consideration, it could have had an incredible syllabus but if the town didn’t have good bars and decent shopping you wouldn’t have found me there.
I received a conditional offer for Nottingham Trent, 45 minutes down the road from my parents in Sheffield and began the Media and Cultural Studies Course which wait for it, involved just six hours of lectures and seminars a week. I spent much of my time in academia highlighting word documents and watching films. It wasn’t very challenging but left a LOT of time for socialising.
Three years later I graduated with a 2:1, a future husband and £13K debt. I worked two jobs for six months and paid off my significant overdraft in my first year of graduating. I finally paid off my student loan after about ten years.

There is little I have ever put into practice from that course. In fact I would say that degree gave me zero preparation for the world outside. My first real job, a marketing assistant for an IT company came with the requirement to have a university degree or equivalent. A few of us started on the same day and our qualifications differed wildly though that particular company did favour higher education and I saw colleagues gain promotions after studying post grad qualifications. It was one of the main reasons I pushed myself to get a CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) diploma through distance learning as again I was ignorant of the skills I needed to progress.

Several years later when I moved companies and started to recruit my own team I have to say it was experience, not education that secured incumbents their roles. However I also appreciate experience can be exceptionally hard to come by and I was stunned by the number of requests I used to get from people who were willing to intern. With student debt rising to over £50K due to increased tuition and living fees staying at home and working for free simply wouldn’t have been feasible for me.
It was hard work and developing commercial awareness that got me any promotions, not those qualifications. Looking back on that first role I was so naive to the ways a corporate environment operated and until I began management training and no idea how my own style could impact others.

Still, university remains one of the best things I ever did mainly because I got to meet my husband. It boosted my confidence, taught me valuable lessons about who I wanted to be, made me stand on my own two feet and enhanced softer skills such as teamwork and time management. I left with no understanding of my alcohol limits, dubious cooking skills but so many memories. Would I do it all again? For £50K maybe not but if I had my time again I’d definitely go in less wide-eyed. I’d grab the opportunity of work placements with two hands and use my own initiative far more. I have to say my desk at uni definitely didn’t look like this gorgeous one from Nat’s Home Tour either!

What’s your experience of university life? Did you go out into the world of work or go off to a new city? Any regrets and would you do it differently if you had your time again?

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42 thoughts on “University – Would You Do It Again?

  1. It’s been almost 20 years since I graduated from University and I have very mixed feelings about my time there.
    Going to university was never questioned when I was at school, it was just what everyone did, so at the age of 17 I left home and traveled 15 miles to study at St Andrews.
    Socially, I learned a lot about love and loss but at that time academia was not my main focus. I really regret not studying more and feel lucky that I managed to scrape a decent degree out of my time there. I’ve gained 3 further degrees and I’m not sure my studying days are over yet – working in education promotion often demands further qualifications.
    St Andrews is still my favourite place in the world, I’m still only 15 miles away and visit almost every month, if you haven’t been there you must visit!
    Would I do it again, hell yes! Red gowns, pier walks and secret grips (if you ever sat at High Table in Sallies you’ll know 😉) I met some amazing people at University and I’m glad so many of them are still in my life today.

    1. Leona, I’ve never been to that part of the world. Would love to go up to St Andrews. You’ve got me all intrigued about secret grips…

    2. I went to St Andrews too! A very special place. I live in Surrey though so don’t get the opportunity to go back very much, however my now-husband took me back there to propose, so it’s even more special now 🙂

      I studied Neuroscience and my job requires a scientific degree so would definitely do it all over again.

  2. Definitely stick up for myself more and call out boys who were just utter arseholes!

    My degree, work experience and Saturday job all fed into what I wanted to do: be an Archivist. I did that for a fair few years (including working on the Hillsborough disaster disclosure project) but permanent jobs were very hard to come by. I then ended up in business support for a executive search firm and now I’m a trainee paralegal with a trade mark and patent law firm! Go figure!

    All in all university definitely benefitted me but I’m already worrying about saving for my nearly 2 year old for when she goes.

    For me uni isn’t just about the academic side; it’s about learning to live by yourself, with others conflict resolution etc. You’ve got a whole lifetime to be “slaves to the machine” have a few years of working and playing hard (if that’s an option open to you)

  3. I’ve just realised I graduated over 20 years ago (now I feel old!!) – I loved uni but my reasons for going were much the same as yours Lauren – I didn’t have a clue what i wanted to do with myself and didn’t want to go into full time job where I grew up as I think I had a fear I might never leave! I bombed my A levels – took a year out and worked – and then reapplied to uni the following year to do International Politics & History at Stoke. I loved my time there – the course was really interesting (but i have not used any of the knowledge in my corporate career in the IT sector ha ha) but what i really took away from those 3 years was about learning to be independent, living with others (the highs and lows of a shared household) and being spontaneous & crazy and meeting wonderful people along the way. I do wish I had put in a bit more academic effort in my final year – but i came out of it with a decent degree at a time when companies were definitely far more concerned with your education than your experience!!
    Sigh i am feeling quite nostalgic now!!

  4. I left uni after I my first year as I fell pregnant. I was very upset about it at first, but looking back I am not sure it would have benefitted me. It was a specialised arts type course and four years rather than three, so meant extra debt. Unless you are extremely dedicated and naturally very talented, it’s difficult to make a good living from it. Quite a few of the people on the course went on to work jobs they could have done with just A levels. Money didn’t motivate me at the time, but my priorities have changed now that I am a parent. I look back on who I was then and I was still so young and lost, with no idea of the world. It seems mad that we ask people to make these final and expensive choices at an age when they are often inexperienced and naive. Now that I’m older I’ve decided against going back to uni, and am finding another route to get to where I want to be. I wouldn’t rule out a degree in the future, but only if I was certain it would be worth it.

    1. I totally agree Jade. I was so unbelievably naive although at 18 I obviously thought I knew it all! There was little guidance when I was choosing my course, I hope these days school leavers are advised more.

  5. I mentioned yesterday, that I am, in a sense going back to Uni this year as I’ve signed up to the first module of an MA with the OU. Part of me would have loved to not go the distance learning/trying to fit it around my almost full time job route, and throw myself into full time learning instead, but I know that just wouldn’t be very practical with bills to pay and a toddler running around.

    My original degree I know has had no bearing on my work life to date. I have a career that sounds great from the outside (it’s some people’s dream job) but mostly means poor pay, being the first out the door at redundancy time and lots of hours at the computer. I learned a lot in those three years in Leeds though, and I wish that I had been braver and pushed myself harder at the time. There were opportunities that I didn’t go for because I was scared, uncertain and lacked the self belief. Looking back I can see that I let my anxiety get in my way.

    In some ways I left University as naive about work as I started it – I still had no idea what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be and how to start going for anything. I spent a few more years aimlessly moving from career possibility to career possibility, never quite getting my foot in the door enough to force my way in there. And then applied for a job that I wasn’t really sure I wanted, but the money would be kind of useful, so hey – why not? And the rest, as they say, is history.

    It’s never too late to change though (they say), so it’s back to school for me.

    Time to be brave.

    1. Rebecca, I got so much out of distance learning. It cemented my work ethic and I have to say I’m really proud that I fitted it around a demanding full time job.
      Obviously you miss out on the social side but I found it really rewarding.
      Best of luck with it all x

  6. I’d love to have a crack at doing my degree again and taking it *slightly* more seriously! The two contact hours a week in my final year were not worth the tuition fees, but I had a lot of opportunities to learn that I didn’t take. But I’ll always be glad I went to uni; I met my now-husband my first day there and my English degree has meant I’ve been able to work as a magazine editor and a writer – dreams come true! I’m still paying my student loan off and it’s a lot of money, but I see it as an investment in my life now and it’s definitely been worth it.

    1. I so wish I’d taken advantage of the opportunities Rachel but you live and learn. I really like the way you see it as an investment in your life now. I think I need to see it in this way too.
      Congrats on the dream job x

  7. I always wanted to be a lawyer and whilst my parents put no pressure on me (having not attended uni themselves) I got into Cambridge to study law against the odds (I grew up in Luton and attended a state school). Now at the age of 30 I am working as a solicitor in the City. I love my job and there is no way I would have got to where I am without my degree, it has opened so many doors. I’ve also just finished paying off my student loan (fees were 3k a year at the time plus maintenance). University is an investment, but given that fees are now 9k a year plus maintenance, I think it is wise for students to think whether or not the course they are opting for is value for money and will give them the return they are looking for, whether that be career, experiences, etc. One thing we should all be thankful for is that in the UK university is so accessible…in the US you need a scholarship or wealthy parents to attend the Ivy League.

  8. I started university when I was 23 and studied Business Management. After discussing possibilities with the Head of Department on a bit of a whim during the first week of term and I started the very next day – I was enrolled so quickly because of my work experience, rather than going through an application process.

    For me, its feels like it was a ‘tick box’ experience to give me the qualification that I needed, rather than giving me a great deal of new skills. I am glad I did it, as I did for me. I grew up in a household where it seemed set out that I would leave school and get a job (any job) near where I lived, live in the same area, and just get on with it. College or university were never encouraged to be an option.

    Recently I have been looking at university again as I would really love to study Criminology. It has been something that has interested me for a long time and my local uni has an excellent programme – but with fees of £10k a year, plus the mortgage and living costs I would need to earn, I don’t know how I would be able to afford it and unfortunately there isn’t a part time option for the course. I understand that extra tuition fees can enable universities to improve and offer better standards, but it has also made it very difficult for people to upskill or change careers.

  9. I think it depends on what you studied and where you went. Like Heidi, I’m a solicitor and there is definitely a focus on recruitment of Oxbridge and Red Brick graduates and if you haven’t got a 2:1 at least then forget it. I couldn’t do what I do or have achieved what I have if I’d done any of the other “longer” options – ILEX or distance learning. For me though, University was more than academia. I met my husband on the first day but I was from a small rural town and had I not gone to University there were literally NO jobs locally – chicken and pork pie factories or working on the land.

    I paid off my student loan too relatively quickly because of the City salary – that extra £450 or whatever a month was BRILLIANT and I overpaid by about £8k because it takes a while for HMRC to catch up with student loans so that was an AMAZING post day. I don’t think it should be described as a student loan though – more a graduate tax as that how it comes out.

    We’re already saving for our children’s University education. £100 a month into Halifax 4.5% account and then transferred to an ISA end of each year. It won’t pay for everything but will help. I worked throughout University (bar third year) and I think that was important to learn to balance socialising, work and academia. Anyway, I’d encourage both kids to work whilst they were there too.

    1. The HMRC take ages to catch up don’t they? I overpaid for a year but rather than get a rebate they kindly kept it pay my freelance tax bill.
      That’s a great rate on a savings account. I really need to start looking into all this.

      1. Halifax regular saver it’s called. Best rate by far but you have to save a regular amount into it (max £100 a month). And it’s only open a year so you have to reopen annually but you can do it online.

  10. I went to uni in the mid-2000s and at the time, I don’t remember anyone saying there was an alternative. My 6th form college was very keen on having a high number of applicants – even to the point that if you wanted to go to Oxbridge, you couldn’t apply for the same course as someone else to increase their chances of successful applicants (a friend wanted to do English and was told he couldn’t because someone else got there first).

    I did English Studies at a little university outside Cardiff – the subject was one I loved and enjoyed and the university seemed alright and was one of the only two I bothered visiting! I remember my Mum checking what the employment rates were for the course post-graduation and wondering why she was so keen to know…! How naive of me! Luckily I got a job soon after and progressed into publishing as I wanted to – albeit not in any kind of editorial capacity! I work in data and audience analysis and my degree has only really taught me good communication skills (which are certainly good to have!)

    If I could do it all again, I’d change my course (something more like computer science) but I wouldn’t change my university as I met one of my now closest friends there. I think the experiences are valuable but I’m not sure they’re worth 9k a year! Not sure what we’ll do if we have kids – my husband didn’t go to uni, he barely finished with GCSEs but has a very successful career too so I think we’re pretty good examples of both paths leading to similar successes career wise and can hopefully advise and support our future offspring whatever they decide to do.

    1. I think it’ll be a whole different ballgame when our offspring are older in terms of qualifications and fees. Like you I’d hope to be able to advise and support them find a route that is fulfilling for them.

  11. I went to university 30 years ago and was lucky enough to be part of the grant system so although I came out with an overdraft, I didn’t have any student loans to pay off. I honestly don’t know how students can afford it these days.
    I went to university because I wanted to study textiles and had wanted to be an artist since a young child. I was extremely naive and optimistic what the course would bring, and in fact it did very little to prepare me for the realities of getting a job in my field and after trying unsuccessfully for many years to get a job in the art world, I finally settled down and ended up in marketing and advertising. It’s not what I want to do but it pays the bills and I still have dreams of being an artist.
    Would I do it again – definitely. I love learning new skills and if I could afford it, I would go back to college, but with all the wisdom I have now and a renewed dedication. I didn’t appreciate all the time and freedom I had to be creative and I would definitely make more use of that time if I went back and be a lot more disciplined.

  12. I remember my time at uni very fondly but it’s a very expensive way of making friends/figuring out what you want to do in life. There are of course professions which you couldn’t do without a degree but so many where a degree only demonstrates your ability to learn to a certain standard with little practical application. I think going to university say in your mid twenties would be more useful – at least in my case anyway. If money was no object I’d love to go back as I really enjoyed the studying bit.

    1. It’s an interesting point Kat about going in your mid twenties. There were several mature students on my course and they definitely approached it differently to those who were just coming out of their teens.

  13. It’s an interesting one isn’t it! As a teacher, I needed a degree and I met friends who have gone on to be bridesmaids at my wedding and godparents to my children. Plus I had a bloody brilliant three years! But I have to say, I’m not sure I’ll encourage my own children to do it as the obvious progression onwards at 18. I think if they are looking at a career which requires a degree or vocational training at uni that’s different but I’d be so worried about them spending 3 or 4 years doing something without an obvious end point when doing that would amass so much debt!! Starting working life at 21 or 22 with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of debt just leaves me feeling terrified for them! (They are only 6,4 and 1 though so it may have changed again by then I suppose!!)

    1. I agree with you. I don’t think I’d position it as the obvious progression without thinking about the end game. I definitely didn’t have one in mind!

  14. This is a really interesting post. Like Heidi and Rebecca, I am a solicitor and the only route to being a lawyer twenty or so years ago was by going to uni (or at least that was what school/college careers advisors told you!!). Our firm is now taking on apprentices who finish their A levels and work at our firm, whilst obtaining a degree at the same time (paid for by the firm) – if they stick it out, it takes about the same time for them to become a solicitor as going through the uni route and is a really good option for those who might not want to incur really high uni fees. I have wondered if I had this option, would I have taken it? I met some great people at uni, got a year studying abroad and generally had a fab time without having the responsibility of a ‘proper’ job. For me, it was therefore worth it, but it’s great there are other opportunities out there. Conversely, my best mate messed up her A levels and never got to uni, she started as a temp in a PR agency and is still there 20 years on pretty much running the show (with a very healthy salary). Uni is most definitely not the be all and end all and that’s what I will be passing on to my children.

    1. This sounds like really progressive thinking from your firm Catherine. Like you say though, would you have gone for the option at the time? The call of the disco ball was too strong for me!

  15. I didn’t go to uni, not because I didn’t get the grades, in fact I walked away with 5 a levels from a good grammar school. Instead, I chose not to go because my year was the first that was going to be hit by the £9,000 a year student fees, and at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Coming from a girls grammar school, I was the only person in my sixth form of 90 students who did not attend university. As such, when I left school, I quickly found myself isolated from my peers. Even 6 years later, people often assume I must be really stupid because I didn’t attend university. However, for me although It was a very difficult decision to make and place on an 18 year old, it was the right one. At 18 I was not mentally, or emotionally ready to enter that world. *
    A lot of people tell me that I missed out massively on life by not going, and in some respects I am more than certain they are correct. With regards to careers though I would say that actually it hasn’t affected me. Ok so my life goal of owning a florists shop has still not been achieved, but I am 24, i have time. I currently work at a distillery (which is amazing fun) and live in the Cotswolds. My careers teachers at school were so focused on achieving 100% university attendance, that in many cases they failed to take into account the mental well being of the people they were sending out into the big wide world. Having said that, many a person I know have flourished at uni.
    I think at the end of the day, so long as you’re happy, it’s not a big deal. If I had the decision all over again would I go to uni? Probably not, not because of the debt or the opening of doors, but because it wasn’t right for me, and I learnt to make friends and grew up in other ways. Ok I still can’t cook, but I’m not sure uni wouldn’t have solved that little issue.

    *The decision to not attend, came after I spent a week with two different friends at their university’s. Both unis were ones I was contemplating attending, with courses that interested me. At the end of the day I came back knowing that mentally I wasn’t ready.

    1. I think it’s a really mature decision to decide you’re not mentally ready to go. Also
      I still can’t cook so it doesn’t make a difference!

  16. I’ve got really mixed feelings about my university experience. On the one hand it moved me to a city I love, made me wonderful friends for life and enabled me to meet my husband.

    Academically it was a total waste of time and money. 25k in the hole for something I have used once, in a pub quiz. I went because that’s just what you did after sixth form but if I had my time again I would go straight into an apprenticeship as I’m currently juggling full time employment with part time study and I don’t love it.

  17. I’ve got mixed feelings about university. I had a bit of a disappointing time during my undergraduate degree. I lived in a student house in first year which meant that I didn’t meet a huge range of people and felt like I’d not found a close group of friends until towards the end of my final year. I also struggled with my course in second year after finding A levels and first year really easy, and changing courses part way through (from maths & philosophy to straight maths). My boyfriend was still at home in Sheffield (I was in Bristol) and I only saw him once every three or four weeks. As a result I suffered from depression in my second and third years. I got into volunteering towards the end of my second year and really wish I’d done this earlier as I felt so much more a part of the whole uni experience. I wish I’d joined more clubs and been more “out there” – and lived in halls in first year! I came out of uni with a 2:2 which I was really annoyed with as I knew I could have done better.

    However, a year after I graduated I decided to do a Masters degree (in Sheffield) in Statistics to prove to myself that my undergrad wasn’t a true reflection of my abilities, and it’s amazing how different that experience was. I definitely approached it differently, though, much more seriously. I was in uni every day and treated it like a job. I graduated with a distinction so it paid off! I’m now a statistician and it’s very rare to be in this field without a MSc so I couldn’t do my job without having been to university.

    1. Katie, so glad to hear you had a better experience with your Masters (and in my home town too!)
      So glad it was all worth it in the end.

  18. I loved my university days so much I stayed for 8 years!! BA, MA, PhD. And how desperately I wanted to stay in academia, but it didn’t want me back! I was so happy finally studying the subject I had wanted to study since early childhood, and I soaked up all the knowledge I could like a sponge, attending extra lectures and seminars, squeezing everything out of the time. I had amazing lecturers and wanted so much to be like them, and I worked so hard with the students I taught- I wanted them to feel that they had learned thinking and analytical skills for life, things that were truly transferable- something so important in this age of “fake news.”

    My subject, archaeology, was always crap for pay, so the £9k fees are killing it. It used to be the lowest paid graduate profession when I graduated. Nobody wants to pay that much for that little. Departments are closing and academic posts are like hens teeth- you spend an average of 7 years “precariously” employed on short term 1 year contracts or 2 year post docs.

    I wouldn’t have got my job without my degrees, but I wouldn’t have got my degrees without a huge amount of privilege. Even with that I couldn’t face precarity. I’m worried that fees will exclude even more people so archaeology and the people who shape are from privileged backgrounds.

    Another issue is that humanities courses are largely about getting you to think for yourself- reflected in the prep you are meant to do and the low contact hours. But this doesn’t feel like value for money! Arts and humanities degrees subsidise STEM which is valorised, but they are crucial. We see the result of science without the humanities in the news all the time- Elon Musk anyone?

    I have a job interview next week (first once since the kids arrived!) so will let you know if I get back to using my degrees and not just wiping bottoms and clearing up Cheerios concreted to the floor…

  19. I chose not to go to uni, I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to study to justify the debt and I had no idea what I wanted to do (still only just worked this out last year aged 30!). All my friends went to uni so it was wierd to be alone in my home town, but I made loads of new friends through jobs and boyfriends. I wouldn’t have met my husband or had our son if I had of gone to uni. I will definitely ask him to make a case for why he should go to uni when the time comes. It’s not for everyone but if it’s right for him I will be proud to see him go. I am pleased I didn’t go, I am not a fan of forced fun, sharing my personal space and formal education although it was always fun to visit my friends and dip my toe into student life!

  20. Just read this today but had to comment as I also did a 6-hour a week course at Nottingham Trent! Were you there during Trollied and Pounded days?! I graduated in early 2000s. Lots of fun but I also didn’t feel particularly stretched by my course. I did however make lots of amazing friends and I just adored Nottingham.

    I also did a CIM diploma once I was back in London, paid for by my employer, and I work in Publishing now. We recruit editorial assistants once every year or two and we tend to have approx. 150 applicants per vacancy as my workplace is quite desirable. I have noticed year on year that the applicants’ universities are increasingly likely to be Oxbridge/red brick and their experience tends to be more and more extensive. I don’t think that I, or other senior managers in the team, would have necessarily got our jobs if we were applying these days. The competition seems to be fierce!

    My husband left school after GCSEs and has worked very hard and has a better salary than me. I feel like my life would have turned out the same regardless if I went to uni or not.

    Not bothered at all if my children choose to go to uni or not. I always felt academia was so important but, when I look at friends, I see it has made no difference to most people’s levels of achievement and/or happiness.

    1. It was the days of Trollied and Pounded! James and I went back last month and took a photo with the bump outside of what was Lizard Lounge (now offices/studios) as it was where we first met! The only place that remains from those days seems to be Ocean. I hope they’ve changed the carpet 😉

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