To A-level students: the ups and downs of university

I posted an article aimed at prospective university students this time last year, when the last round of A-level results were delivered to thousands of hopeful individuals. Since then I’ve completed my final year of university and feel it is necessary to reiterate the message I sent twelve months ago.

A considerable amount of things have changed in the UK’s education system since then, namely the controversial rise in tuition fees and the consequential rise in the number of young people considering not attending university at all.

On my A-level results day I was more interested in opening my results so that my friends and I could celebrate with a day at the beach and some cheap sparkling wine, pretending it was champagne. University was less of a worry then, not just because of a fairly safe feeling of fixed fees of roughly £3000 and a less challenging time spent gaining a place, but also because I hadn’t fully made up my mind whether to go.

Last year I told A-level students not to worry if they didn’t get into university – it wasn’t the end of the world the media were portraying it to be and there is an incredible amount to be said for taking a gap year.

I stick by that message, especially as UCAS is considering the use of gap years to allow applicants to gain additional points for ‘life experience’. I use the term loosely. But more than that, I want to encourage people to go to university. Yes, it’s expensive, you’ll be eating beans for the next three years and forever complaining to landlords about your heating system, but nothing can describe the experience you gain in return.

While I’m saying this I must point out I also fear a lot of people who miss out on their choice of university offers will be tempted to take whatever course offers they can get. Please don’t, or at least, consider them carefully. The clearing system may feel like a pressurised route to snap decisions about your future, but it’s important to remember that what you study is going to be the reason you’re in the campus library at 4am during the January exam period, and furiously researching a topic within your degree topic in three years time, searching for an interesting dissertation angle in the 20th textbook you’ve had to read that week. You’ve got to like your degree subject, end of. University is an incredible experience in itself, but the friends you’ll make and the fun you’ll have socialising with them won’t be of much comfort if you hate what you’re studying. I made that mistake and it took me two years to rectify it.

Now for the more pressing matter: you haven’t got onto your chosen course and don’t want to do anything else, you’d rather gain some additional UCAS points this year and apply again next summer. Or perhaps you really would like a gap year but are worried about the rise in fees you’ll encompass by passing up a place this September.

Debt is scary, there are no two ways about it, but I feel utter despair when I hear young people in the news say they’re considering skipping university altogether in fear of the cost. Next year a degree may cost you £9000 annually, I accept it is enough to put people off. But here’s what you have to remember, and it’s hard because you haven’t experienced it yet. It is (relatively) easy to put a price on a degree course. It is impossible to put a price on the experience you get out of it. I can hear many people reading this letting out a huge sigh at an inevitable cheesy sentence I had to include, but it’s true. University provided the best years of my life, and there’s a damn good chance it will for you too.

For the first time in your life you’ll be meeting friends in an adult environment, with the freedom to express yourself however you wish. The opportunities to get involved with things you’ve never thought of before are endless. I won’t list the experiences I’ve had because the variety available is too vast to say mine will apply to most people, but if education is important to you, or the job you want to do requires a degree, or you’re just not sure what to do next, seriously consider university. It doesn’t matter how far you travel or how close you stay to home, if you want to go, go.

Oh, and one last thing: All this stuff about students from poorer backgrounds not being able to afford a place at university – ignore it. I understand the pressure it must place on parents without a high income, but every student is entitled to a tuition fee loan and maintenance to cover rent. Bills and going out do cost additional amounts, true, but you manage. It’s not the easiest thing and you can’t go out shopping every week, but it’s not impossible either. I paid my own way through university by doing temp work in the holidays and though there were times when I had no money, I survived without the help of any wealthy parents. You can too.

Good luck to everyone getting their results today, and whatever situation you’re in, don’t forget to celebrate. You’ve worked hard for the last two years, there’ll be harder work to come, but for now enjoy the day with your friends before you all move onto new things.

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