WHY I DIDN’T GO TO UNIVERSITY

Last month I was invited back to my old school to talk to a group of sixth form students about what it’s like to write for a living (what is life?) and the question I think I was asked more than any other was “what did you study at university???”

I told them that I hadn’t studied anything at university because I hadn’t ever gone to university and I literally heard jaws hitting the carpet.

I grew up thinking that if you didn’t go to university, you were probably not going to achieve much with your life. Although neither of my parents had gone, I was lead to believe that times had changed (they have btw) and my school didn’t do anything to change my mind. I spent my school years working so that I could go to university, that was the point of school I thought.

It wasn’t that my school was particularly pushy, it was just a school and schools these days are little factories, university suppliers.

When I was 13 I chose what subjects I would do for my GCSEs, exams that I needed to pass so that I would be permitted to stay at my school and take my A Levels, which would ensure that I would get the appropriate grades in the appropriate subjects for whichever university would take me.

I was on the university train.

Lots of people are put on this train as an early teenager and are not really allowed off it again until they’re are a grownup with actual boobs, a proper makeup bag, considerably better clothes than they got on it with and with a degree in economics but a dream to make jam in the Peak District.

I am ashamed to be dissing this train; this is a train that I know countless people all over the world would kill to be on, but sadly, this is a train not everyone has a ticket for, it doesn’t stop in everybody’s station, it’s a train that not everyone can afford. I know that, so please don’t think I’m taking the fact that I was given a ticket to that train for granted, I’m not.

But I did get off that train, that route wasn’t for me, university wasn’t for me and I wanted to chat that one through.

I was offered a place to go and read politics at Leeds University which I had accepted. Assuming my A Level results were good enough, I would be starting there in September 2013 after a planned year off.

Why politics? Why not? I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do and so, worryingly, (considering where that degree could have taken me) I just did it without thinking too much about it.

After I got my GCSE results in 2010 and they weren’t ~terrible~, I realised I would probably be alright doing exams that I was actually interested in (read: if I can pass MATHS, I’m terrible at maths, then maybe my future isn’t totally bleak.)

So I took four A Level subjects: English language, politics, history and photography. I love modern history, I have a passion for current affairs, writing is my thang (obvi) and I am creative but not that good at drawing so photography seemed as good a subject as any (a great shout btw, I adored it).

I actually really enjoyed all of them.

Alas, I didn’t get the results I needed to get into Leeds University (which were 4As by the way – what chance did I stand?!). There were a few factors; the exam timetable had been messed around with (we took all of our A Level & AS exams in one go at the end of year 13, totally moronic), my parents were splitting up, I didn’t really care that much about politics, or school, or exams???… all of the above? Who knows.

I was in the Las Vegas (of all places) with my dad when I logged onto my UCAS account and realised that every single plan and dream I had made for my future was totally shattered.

I cried, I panicked, I called my mum, she cried.

Oh Em, everyone cooed, what are we going to do????

Ah yes, the collective WE.

Let me just talk for a minute, if I may, about the ‘collective we’.

It’s a funny thing that people do, in the midst of a crisis. You’ll have seen it for yourself: head first your nearest and dearest will throw themselves in. WE will get through this, they tell you. We will find a solution. We will be okay. 

Sometimes, this is amazing. Sometimes, it’s perfect. Sometimes, ‘we’ is the best word in the English language. There are times however, when it is not.

When my stomach went to shit and I found out I couldn’t eat gluten and dairy or sugar or alcohol or caffeine or nuts anymore I remember Alex telling me that WE would get through this. He said it with a burger in his hand.

When I reversed my car into a fence I remember my friend telling me that WE would sort it. I knew that I was the one that was going to need to pay for it, and the one’s who’s parents were going to flip.

When I found out that I hadn’t got into university and that, if I wanted to go, I would need to resit my exams and thus sacrifice my year off, I remember a lot of my friends telling me that WE would be okay. They had one eye on me as they spoke and the other on their halls application form.

Sometimes the ‘collective we’ is not really okay. University is not a we thing. It’s a me thing. Remember that if you’re in the midst of it all at the moment.

So I came back to London, world not totally, but for the most part, shattered and started an office job which I absolutely adored because I was playing the grownup and it suited me. I still had no idea what I was going to do.

My friends were off at university by this point and they were loving it, they were LOVING IT. My best mate was at UCL so I’d see her all the time, I’d go out with her uni mates on the regular and I had other friends at London Universities too, they all loved coming to my house (I was living at my mums) because it was clean and I had a kitchen and I could cook.

I was young enough to be able to go out as late as they were and wake up early enough to get to work. I was probably terrible at my job but I loved that I HAD a job.

I remember where I was the first time I was paid. I was walking home from work because I did not have a spare £1.50 for the bus (my liver could take the pounding I was giving it on the regular with my mates at uni but my bank balance couldn’t).

I went to a hole in the wall to optimistically check my bank balance (as I did every day, too embarrassed to ask my first proper boss when pay day was) and ERMIGAD there was some real bloody money in there.

I rang my mum, I cried for a bit (are you noticing a theme here?) and then I carried on walking (I thought it best to learn from this month’s mistakes and save the pennies), and I decided, in that moment, that this was what I wanted to do, this is who I wanted to be, this was the life that I wanted to live.

I didn’t want to go to university. I had just been paid money that I had earned for a job that I was doing in a house that I called home. I was living the fantasy that I had dreamt up for myself as I cried myself to sleep as a young teenager not loving school (shameless plug, I wrote a book and talk a lot about this if ya fancy reading it) and it was perfect.

I had, until that day, been seriously considering starting in a college that January to resit my exams and give university another go. I got home and plopped the admission forms in the bin.

I talked to my parents, I told them how I felt, I told them I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I wanted to be in London and that I wanted to work right away and they told me that was okay and I took my sub par A Level results and I walked into the sunset.

That was six years ago, now look at me go.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like learning, I actually really enjoyed learning. I’m a bit upset I didn’t learn more to be honest. I could have re-sat my exams, I actually could have got into university with the grades that I had, granted it wouldn’t have been Leeds and it wouldn’t have been politics, but I could have gone.

Maybe I will go back one day, a senior student or whatever it is they’re called.

But I have never regretted my decision. In fact, I think it was one of the best ones I have ever made.

I missed out on a lot, I didn’t get to meet hundreds of new people, I didn’t get to further my education, I didn’t get to go to all the parties – I robbed myself of an experience that I will never have the opportunity to try again, I know that.

And yet I STILL don’t regret it.

I wanted OUT. And I got it. I have always wanted to be independent. I have always wanted to earn my own money and have clean sheets and not drink vodka shots JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE ON OFFER FOR 50p and have a job and a proper adult life. And yes, you CAN do all of that at university, but I know me, and I know how I’d have done it, and I know I would have done the vodka shots JUST BECAUSE THEY WERE 50p.

I was ready for the responsibility that a lot of people go to university to avoid.

And I don’t feel like I’m any less successful because of it, I don’t feel like I could have done MORE if I’d gone to uni. I’d just have done DIFFERENT. And there is a difference between more and different.

I have been lucky, I have been incredibly lucky, you don’t need a degree to be a blogger after all.

So maybe I am not the right person to push my seemingly anti-university agenda, what do I really know?!

Nothing. Except for the fact that I don’t think you need a degree. Not unless you are going to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a vet, or a lawyer. If you want to be one those things, you really fucking need a degree. But for the rest of us?

I don’t know. Job opportunities are more prevalent for those with a degree, at least, that’s what it says on every.bloody.job spec, but I think there are exceptions to every rule. And in this case I think there are a lot of exceptions, I know a lot of exceptions anyway.

I’ve been fine without one, I’ve been GREAT without one. Nor did it didn’t help Alex, he dropped out of UCD after eighteen months to join a boyband (I mean?!) and now he’s being a brilliant worker bee at a brilliant PR firm in London.

I spent my teen years thinking that university was the only option for me, the only option for anyone.

But then I went out into the world and I realised that it wasn’t THE option, it was just ONE option.

And that just wasn’t the option for me.

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4 Comments

  1. LouiseN
    April 20, 2018 / 7:10 pm

    I really didn’t want to be on the university train that my school was pushing me towards. When I said I didn’t want to even apply I had to have two meetings and my parents had to come in to appeal to the headmaster. It wasn’t good for their stats and 100% record. In our leavers information pack They marked me down as reapplying next year or something like that that made it looked like I couldn’t go as I’d failed to get in.
    My a levels had been a complete mix heading in no particular direction (maths, French, graphics and geography) as I didn’t know what I wanted to do. They were trying to push me to apply to do one of those at uni. After I sixth form i got a job in the crown court (through a connection my mum had) sitting in court taking notes and tape recording cases ( I’m talking 2002 so cassettes were still used in court haha) . I loved it so much!
    My friends however had all moved to different cities to be at uni. I’m in Manchester and they’d gone to Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds so I had to visit them to do my pretending to be a student and joining in their fun. Cutting the story short I decided to apply to university 1. I wanted to party and live like a student for a while and didn’t want to miss out on that 2. I wanted to show those idiot teachers that made me feel like a failure that I wasn’t (looking back I wish I didn’t care about this but I definitely did!) 3. I found that I had an interest in law. So i went on to study law and I’m now a solicitor, albeit a disillusioned one after the birth of my son there was zero flexibility and I now am self employed. (On a separate note I’m finding it hard to stay motivated and not procrastinate. God it’s not easy)
    Anyway I definitely think it’s wrong that teenagers aren’t given all the options, I definitely think that university isn’t for everyone and getting out in the real world can sometimes be the best thing. You sound like you managed to get the best of both world by having student friends around so that you didn’t miss out on too much partying.
    God sorry for the life story.

  2. Sharon Endacotte
    April 20, 2018 / 7:17 pm

    I went to university by accident back in 1992. I hadn’t planned on it, but all of my friends were going and I didn’t want to be left behind, so I panicked a bit and grabbed a course through clearing. I loved the student experience, but didn’t much care for the course (big surprise), and I ended up leaving as much by accident as I started when I got knocked off my moped and temporarily had more important lessons to learn – like how to walk unaided with a completely destroyed ACL when your knee is determined it’s never going to hold you up again. So I never did graduate from the course I didn’t particularly want to do anyway.

    It didn’t really hold me back. I spent a few years trying different jobs and eventually ended up in the Civil Service, where I spent the next decade. But then something unexpected happened: I had a breakdown.

    I was off work for a long time, and I began thinking about all the things that weren’t working for me, and I realised that I’d always felt university was unfinished business. More than that though, if I went to university, I would have time and space to work out what I really wanted. I didn’t really expect to get in as a mature student who’d already royally messed the whole thing up once, but they did, and once I’d achieved that, it made me feel like I could be really properly brave with all the other things that were bothering me. Even my friends thought I’d made a bit mistake and I would never stick with it, but I was determined to show the lot of them. During my second year, I put my house on the market, and by the end of the year I had separated from my husband and accidentally moved to London. This made my end of year exams interesting, as I was at university in Plymouth at the time.

    Yet again, I found myself stuck with some stark choices, but I knew that if I dropped out this time, I’d never get another opportunity to do it. I realised that more than anything, this time I really did want to go to university, and I really did want to graduate, and I really didn’t want to cock it up, but I also knew that I couldn’t go back to Plymouth with all the memories and difficult emotional baggage. So (after managing to convince a rather sceptical course tutor that I was up to transferring universities in my final year) I transferred to LSBU, and in a breathtaking moment of insanity, moved from my original study path to an engineering degree. I spent my summer taking catch-up classes to ensure I could handle the more challenging mathematical elements, and learned how to solder and design circuits so I could deal with the practical side. It would have been really easy to just walk away, but I didn’t want to do that, and I repaid the course tutor’s faith in me by graduating with a 2:1. The proudest moment of my life so far was the day I graduated, at the age of 37.

    But here’s the thing. Even if I hadn’t had my accident, I don’t think I was ever going to graduate in the 90s. I didn’t want to go to university, and I went for all the wrong reasons. Choosing to go in as a mature student was probably the best decision I’ve ever made, and even though I’m not using my degree in my current job, I can’t emphasise enough just how big a difference it meant to me on a personal level. It’s about doing things that are right for you, when they are right for you. You might never want to go to university, and that’s OK, or you may decided in another ten years that you might want to do it for your own satisfaction, but whatever you do, going to university – or not – should only ever be a choice you make because you want to do it (either for personal or careers reasons), not just because you feel you should. You are the only person who can live your life, so sod anyone who tells you otherwise.

  3. Beth Mason
    April 22, 2018 / 10:20 am

    I completely agree there should be more options put to school leavers other than you must go to university or face eternal unemployment. I did go to university to study english lit and adored it. It was a baptism of fire in learning how to live as an adult but did it help my career? Ha. While I don’t regret it, and maybe I did need three years of learning how to do my own washing and what to do when your house has a mouse infestation to be let out into the wild, I think I would be further along in my career if I had spent those three years getting work experience. Similar to you, I’m a journalist and the only qualification I really needed was the six month NCTJ course I took after graduating. Schools should definitely teach that there is more out there. For instance, we were never recommended trades like plumbing, hairdressing, etc which are extremely viable careers. Congratulations on having the courage to follow your own path!

  4. September 22, 2018 / 4:24 pm

    How much do I wish I’d read this two years ago, when I was despairing of our daughter’s exam results, stressing her and us out like crazy, and for what? She’s beautiful and clever and she’s doing what she loves, not BECAUSE of her A level results, but IN SPITE of them. Do we love her any less? Obviously not. Are we any less proud of her? No. Thank you for this post. It should be essential reading for dads and mums everywhere.

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