What would you say to a young person thinking of going to university?

I was recently asked the question – what would your career advice be to a young person who has to decide whether to go to university or start work at the lowest position and work their way up?


The answer seems to be in the question: what would your career (underline career) advice be? Traditionally one went to university because it was a requirement for a profession such as Law, Medicine or Science. These were also primarily research establishments where professors would share their research with students and students just picked up knowledge along the way. In that sense they were networking establishments where you picked up tips and contacts. Degrees and education became more formalised but the networking element was always of value. Inns of court (for barristers) still carry this quality with them as well as supplying a professional qualification. No less valid was the value of university in finding a marriage partner.


The Bertie Wooster attitude to university was to treat it as a fashionable and fun accomplishment. Certainly the degree itself for this class was definitely a secondary concern.   University was an exclusive social club, a finishing school and a place to rid oneself of the worst excesses of one’s teenage years before taking on the mantle of ‘adult’. In the twentieth century we perhaps see this idea of university study for its own sake and as a means of developing the mind. This had the intention (or hope) that one might become a more independent thinker and make better decisions for oneself and, yes, appear more attractive perhaps on the job market for higher paid jobs. This was particularly true at a time when there were plenty of jobs to be had and social class often decided what opportunities you received.


Does university nowadays bestow a social status or make one a member of a privileged club? Not in itself, although Oxbridge and some of the older universities still have a cachet about them that would gain automatic respect with the likelihood of a greater chance of selection and better opportunities. Nor is university, in itself, a hallmark of scholarship anymore, especially with so many vocational degrees on offer. Indeed some universities will go out of their way to ensure their degrees do not place incriminating emphasis on vocational issues for fear of losing that allusion to scholarship, presumably recognised through the censorious opinions of other leading universities. University is seen as a place that might provide a distinction between oneself and one’s fellows on the job market and hence help ensure that you get a job in the first place, which ironically might then mean starting at the bottom and working your way up. But is this a valid assumption anymore?   True perhaps even ten years ago – but now?


No comment would be complete without addressing the issue of cost of university compared to the benefits of receiving an immediate wage. If you can’t afford to lose the money in university cost, accommodation and subsistence, and no income for at least three years you would have to make a business decision as to whether the financial investment will give you a satisfactory return. When you are eighteen I would suggest that you are ill-equipped to make that decision with any accuracy.


Another important feature of university of questionable value one needs to mention is that it can build one’s confidence. Confidence is a wonderful thing and so important and useful and, in some circumstances essential. However university does not guarantee it, neither is it the sole access to confidence.   Real confidence comes from knowing that you have a place, a function you can fulfil, you are valued and loved. A certificate is a shallow and short-lived bringer of confidence and the individual and ego-fuelled behaviour that produces confidence at university is less welcome in the workplace where teamwork and commitment to the job is what is most valued.


If ‘career’ is about the influence and scope of your network then university still remains a platform with the potential to provide you with a powerful network (assuming you know how to generate, grow and maintain a network). If ‘career’ is about experience, usefulness and teamwork then starting from the bottom and working your way up is a valid and worthwhile pursuit.   The real issue is, can you get a job in the first place. In a tough job market, university has been a fitting tool to avoid the terrible day of judgement when it comes to finding a job.


If you do not need university for entry into one of the professions and you can get a job, get a job. The university experience can come in many forms and can wait. You will miss some fun but equally having money in your pocket can finance fun too. Learn how to network and have a varied and random set of contacts (university is not particularly good at helping you achieve either of these two benefits) as these will give you future opportunities far beyond a university degree.   Get a job, be a nice, obliging and enthusiastic person – and you will prosper.