My friend, Hester, graduated from Nottingham university this year. She’s been doing some work experience in a PR company based in the UNFM offices so I’ve had the opportunity to have a few chats. She has no regrets about university with the exception of the debt that now follows her around. Last week, she casually chucked into the conversation that she and her mates had worked out that their “face time” – ie, tutor time – was costing them each about £65 an hour. That added up to quite a big chunk of money and it got her wondering if undergraduates were really getting good value for money.
I thought it would be interesting to share her story of experiencing the “proper” work place for the first time. How had her university prepared her for the workplace? Knowing what she does now, would she have done anything differently? And, was that £65 an hour worth it?
When I was making the choice about attending university, my parents really drilled it home to me that university was not a means to a job; it would not guarantee me a job, and I should not attend solely in order to get a job at the end.
Their constant drilling clearly worked. I firmly subscribe to the view that university is so much more than a way into the workplace. University is about learning. It’s about learning to live away from home, with people who aren’t your family, and won’t put up with your bad habits. It’s about learning to be completely independent, to manage your own funds and your own time. It’s about learning to think in a completely different way to how you were taught at school, in my case, critically; we were taught to critique and question everything. And it’s about learning more about the subjects that interest you.
Retrospectively, it is hard to know the extent to which university prepared me for the workplace. It taught me many of the critical, analytical and social skills that I use every day – skills I thought, aged 18, had reached their full potential. Nonetheless, it is impossible to say that I would not have had the same, or an even better, learning experience in the workplace.
I had worked in an office environment before university, mainly during my school holidays or on my gap year. This was in mostly administrative or secretarial roles, for a range of companies specialising in everything from event management to accountancy. I do not think these roles provided me with even an inkling of the skills that my three years at university gave me. They showed me how an office operated and allowed me to tick off those fields I did and didn’t want to work in.
Instead, I would count my internship at Salix & Co as my first real job. While, I hope, I could bring to Salix the skills I learnt at university I have also gained a whole new set. Again, I
have learnt to think in a different way, this time to put myself in the mind of a journalist or potential new client, and a new set of critical and analytical skills.
That isn’t to say that the skills I learnt at university haven’t come in handy. As I said before, I use them every day, often without realising. I’m sure this is especially true of my writing skills, which were definitely honed at university, and are transferable to the areas in which I would like to work.
It is, however, true to say that university may not be the most useful thing when it comes to entering the workplace. Nottingham has an excellent graduate advice programme. They run surgeries for CVs, cover letters etc. almost every day. They also have several graduate fairs during the term, which are open to everyone – whether or not the students make use of these services is another matter entirely! But I don’t think anything prepares you for going into an office environment, even vocational courses.
The only negative thing I took away with me from university is the debt – all however-many tens of thousands of pounds of it. I come from the privileged, or maybe really stupid, position of being able to say that, while this debt does bring me a sense of dread, it is not a permanent dark cloud hanging over me. However, it does make me shudder to think that, while I would not have had the same ‘university experience’ had I gone straight into the workplace, I would have gained a useful set of skills while probably also being debt free.
The question that always bugged me while at university was, where does my money actually go? The comparison that can be made between my experiences of university and the workplace is the amount of contact time I have received. Again, I may be coming at this from an extremely privileged position but I feel that during my internship I have received a high level of guidance and direction. In comparison, by my third year of university I had six contact hours a week. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have some fantastic tutors, who dedicated hours of their time to helping me (it is also not to say that I didn’t have some truly terrible ones). One would hope, or even expect, that £9,000 a year would warrant more contact hours a week than I have received a day during a paid internship.
If I had my time over I would go to university again. I was lucky in that I loved my course and I made some amazing friends. However, the combination of the increase in tuition fees and the improvements to apprenticeship and school leavers programmes does make me question the necessity of it; I can’t say that had I left home and got a job at 18 I wouldn’t have the skills I have now. What I think I can say with some confidence is that I wouldn’t know nearly as much about the history of sharks, the politics of drugs or the ideas of Michel Foucault as I do now.