So, I never went to university. And it’s been a source of confusion for me for a long time.

Growing up in a working-class family, university seemed like a faraway dream. Apparently in school I showed some promise, and it became an expectation. But I never knew what I wanted to study. I had an idea of doing a BA in linguistics but language courses weren’t supported by my high school. It didn’t matter. My high school academic career came crashing down in a large thump, and my leaving exam results were terrible. I didn’t receive a university admission score because I did vocational training, which really paid off. That was the only reason I was able to get job.

I see kids being tortured each year by these leaving exams and I just want to hug them and say, ‘They don’t matter. None of this matters. Your teachers are told to tell you this is the be-all and end-all of your life, but it’s really not.’ The vocational courses I took are so useful, and kids aren’t encouraged to take them. Some would say that if you want to study at university, the exam is important, but there are always other ways, even if you have to wait a bit.

It took me eight months to find my first job. I was a trainee, paid a pittance, taken advantage of. I raged and wailed inside. Surely there was more than this. I shouldn’t be here. I should be at university. University became the unattainable goal of all my academic and moral failings, and I’ve been fixated on it ever since.

Most of my social group have a degree. I have a couple of friends working on their Masters. I have a couple of friends working on PhDs. My future husband, who would be the first to admit he’s not a natural academic, has a Bachelor’s degree. His school career was much like mine, but his university arts course (which sadly no longer exists) was portfolio-based. But his creativity, dedication and drive knows no bounds. He graduated with flying colours.

I freely admit I’m lazy. I hate homework. I was never good at writing essays. Proofreading all my friends’ essays and exegeses made my head spin with the complexity of their concepts and arguments (everyone knows visual artists can’t spell, so that’s where I came in!). I actually snuck into my friends’ uni classes for about six weeks once and I was surprised by how intense it was. I did a year of college last year and I didn’t do the homework I was supposed to, and our modules were graded by two measly assessments. I could have tried harder. I don’t have the discipline for the rigorous workload of university. I could be admitted into the course I want easily, especially as I am now a mature-age student. But it’s not a good idea.

I’ve been working constantly for over seven years now, in a variety of roles in a variety of industries in two different countries. I’ve been able to pick up a very broad skill set and industry knowledge which has helped me always find jobs. I’m never out of work for long, whereas my boyfriend has had trouble when there’s no work in his industry (which happens a lot). Some would argue that the on-the-job knowledge the great unwashed learn is much more valuable than a degree. But some employers prefer people who have degrees, no matter the area of study, because it proves they’re disciplined and dedicated. Conversely, university graduates find that they are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with the workplace because the world is much more different than the world of university.

Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m in love with the idea of going to university. Do I miss learning? Do I want to meet people and set myself on a new path? Is it societal pressure? Is it the urge to fit in with my friends? Is it fulfilling the expectation that myself and others had of me while I was at school? Is it proving that I’m better than my upbringing? Is it the fact that the art world looks down on those without degrees? Is it going to enrich my life? Did I miss out? Have I failed?

Realistically, here are the facts: I’m getting married and becoming one half of a household. My partner works in an unstable industry. I can’t afford to take three years off work to study. In a few years, when we have a child, I want to take time off then. I’ve gotten this far without a degree. In my line of work, degrees are not needed. I retrained for the museum industry and it didn’t work, and a degree is not going to help. In fact, I still don’t really know what I want to do with my life. I am debt-free and would like to stay that way. My ultimate aim is to purchase a house, and years of lost income plus years of debt will definitely not help achieve that goal. I’m not cut out for long-term intense study.

So why do I feel like I’ve failed? That I’m a great big plebeian who has no business being let out in public?

The answer is, I don’t know. But this haunts me. And I think it always will. I’ll always think I’m inferior. Sometimes I feel empowered, like ‘Yeah! I don’t need a piece of paper to say I’m smart and capable, take that!’ But most of the time I’m not.

So, degrees – are they worth it?

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