A young person's guide to avoiding university
Nancy Barrett talks about her university experience, or lack thereof, and shares her opinions on the pressures of higher education and unrealistic job specifications.
Psychology. Art & Design. Nursing. Sociology. What do these four things have in common?
Nothing. Correct! These are the university courses I applied to and subsequently withdrew my applications from, during a three year long effort to persuade myself higher education was something I really wanted to do. When I actually had no idea what I really wanted to do, much like many other soul searching adolescents.
When did university become such a life altering opportunity and compulsory decision? Children crying over SQA envelopes because they did or didn’t get the results they’d hoped for. More than ever before, schools are pushing lots of square pegged children into round, university shaped, holes - but the reality is that if teenagers were offered the multitude of opportunities that are out in the real world, they might opt out of picking the route of four years of stress inducing academia. At 18 the world is very much your oyster - so if you’ve stumbled upon this article via teary eyed googlings like ‘is my life over because I didn’t get into uni’ or ‘how to get a job without a degree’ then my goal is to have virtually dried your eyes and brightened your spirits by the time you reach the end of the page.
Whether you voluntarily opt out of uni or not - the FOMO definitely kicks in early on. You’re working a zero hour contract behind a bar with strangers clicking their fingers in your face, while your friends are at freshers week - kick starting their independence, living with five other people, consuming copious amounts of pasta and Glen’s Vodka. Character building stuff, right? The university experience is something to be sought after. But if the SHREK franchise has taught us anything, it’s that good things can become joyless and lose their quality when the quantity increases. Quality over quantity. Some things only have impact if they’re rare to come by. Everyone goes to university now. So why do we still find this at the top of every job ad?
Mandatories include: Bachelor’s degree
Key skills needed: Proficient in powerpoint and excel
What does a degree have to do with partaking in something Dolly Parton hated so much she wrote an entire song about it? And does it make any difference to your ability to do well in a job? As a uni-dodger myself, my opinion is no (quelle surprise). Unless you’re an epidemiologist, or perhaps the Secretary of State for Health. Those are jobs with skill sets you probably want to have some prior knowledge of beforehand. But niche and knowledgeable trades aside, does a career in advertising need an advertising degree? I took my theory to the streets of Leith to find out (by that I mean I sent emails with no context, asking people what they studied at university). Turns out we have quite the smorgasbord of graduates among us! History, English Literature, Politics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Psychology. Advertising or Marketing degrees? Seldom to none.
Based on our wide range of "irrelevant to advertising" qualifications, it’s obvious most people at Leith learned how to be top notch marketeers on the job - their degree was just another rung climbed on the CV ladder.
At school, you don’t get to choose if you want to go to university or not. People with 5 highers get herded into the library to start their applications and if you're on your fourth attempt to pass Int. 2 maths then stay in the room and talk to this person about apprenticeships. Glossing over the fact that this method is completely ridiculous and limiting to young people, I was in the ‘you must go to uni’ group. Sat in the library googling ‘easiest degrees’ before closing my eyes and landing my finger on the screen at random.
I never wanted to go to university, but could always feel my mum’s middle class concern whenever I started to feel brave enough to sack it off - so I applied. And withdrew. Multiple times. Something always felt off, I never felt any excitement or passion writing my umpteenth personal statement. Trying to convince the reader that my three day work experience in my Godfather’s B&B meant I had a ‘passion for caring for others’ and that ‘this was where my love for nursing began’. Once I started paying attention to my own interests instead of my mother’s, I started looking for jobs. The common issue I encountered was that everywhere wanted a degree. I recounted my highschool experience whilst hunched over my laptop in my flat which still had a Christmas tree in the corner in June 2018. I could do a modern apprenticeship! Apprenticeships are evolving, and trade jobs where your colleagues send you away for a tin of tartan paint or a left handed screwdriver are only a small selection of what they now offer. You can do an apprenticeship in just about anything these days so I started looking in the creative industries and found Leith, and she spoke to me.
I came for my interview and got shown round the office afterwards (which I took as a good sign). In my 19 year old brain it felt like in the movies when they work in publishing in New York and say things like ‘walk with me’ and hold up two magazine covers for a choice to be made on which to use. I was over the moon. I had infiltrated one of the hardest industries to get into with no degree or past experience. All I had to do was start the job and show proof of developing skills to pass my apprenticeship. I couldn’t believe my luck. Next week, I’ll have worked at Leith for 3 years. I’m now the ripe old age of 23 (emphasis on the ripe, not so much on the old), my mum’s still talking to me and I’m forever thankful that Leith saw my potential and looked past my credentials.
The moral of the story, my friends, is that you can do anything you put your mind to. University degrees and exam results are not the be all and end all of your development post high school (although it definitely feels like it at the time). I came to Leith with 3 years of supermarket experience in my back pocket and some questionable interrailing stories. I spent my time sleeping on the streets of Barcelona and de-escalating fights that broke out in the fresh produce aisle, which once resulted in someone throwing a watermelon at my back. So you know, not the most glamorous of experiences. But it didn’t matter! Leith liked me and wanted to give me a shot. They hired me with no advertising experience, or as my new found TikTok knowledge would encourage me to say ‘no thoughts, just vibes’.
Sometimes that’s enough - if you find an employer willing to show you the ropes and you’re keen to put the work in to earn your stripes, then a degree quickly decreases in importance. What you’ll realise is important is 1. Do you want to do the job? 2. Do you have the ability to do it well? If your answers to both of these questions are yes then the company's answer to your job application should be ‘Welcome aboard!’.