University - Is there another way?

A writer asks whether university is really the best choice.

Josh Watson
23rd May 2022
Sometimes it's hard to know which way is best. Image credit: Flickr
Over the last three years of university - I have often asked myself whether university really was for me. I have always been someone who enjoys the practical end of physics. But after my course had a lack of laboratory work in the second year, I was let down. Since then it's been all complex numbers and even more complex algebra. But at the end of all this - what job I am getting out of this? What skills do I have? Is there any better way to get them?

In the Guardian last week you can find a running conversation on the unfair average young people that go to university have over their peers. With 53% of the population going to university, nearly £30,000 is spent on them by the government (Not on the student, all the unpaid student loans and interest that have to go somewhere). Meanwhile, the rest of the population has to make do on next to nothing - leading straight to a pathway of low paid jobs. With this, there is support for moving from the now surpassed 50% target to the 70% of the student-age population at university by 2040. However, I think this is tackling the issue the wrong way around. 

University has limited opportunities to prepare for a working environment. In the sciences, there is a path laid out for every undergraduate straight to a research position - and little else on the side. I have often been told that ‘with a physics degree you can do anything from finance to media’ however the course is nothing like this.

Instead, we should be encouraging growth in the hybrid or full apprenticeships, where practical skills are taught alongside research-based ones. To keep it in my ball court,  one of the leading centres of research in the UK (the national physics laboratory), has no more than a handful of integrated degree apprenticeships. While these spaces are more expensive to run the traditional academia  - they pay for themselves. There isn't a single research scientist that would say no to a pair of competent hands to speed things along.

University has limited opportunities to prepare for a working environment.

And then there is the area I am moving into - having recently gone through the application and interview process for the range of behind the scenes media positions,  many of which still have an academic component to them. With rare expectations,  these courses are level 3 and 4 apprenticeships,  the equivalent of studying the first year of a degree. From there this course has simple paths way to high production positions, technical officers and many more high position jobs in respected companies. Think of the degree you are studying,  how much of your time is wasted on theoretical nonsense?

Those wanting to go into journalism find they get much more experience in Student Media than on their course - how much more would they get working at a newspaper for half their week?

While many engineers are university do spend their time in a practical way - what if the projects that they developed their skills on were not just buried away after three years but part of larger teams? All of these would create students better suited to the job market - allowing them to have some of those 5 years of experience every ‘’entry-level’’ job seems to want. 

So, is university the best choice? For some, yes! Many people don't have this sense of direction I talk about there when they turn 18,  many want to leave as many doors open to them as possible. These are fair points - but I know just as many that knew at the end of the sixth form that they wanted the practical experience to make a decision on what to do next,  and that is something universities will always lack.

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