There’s a lot of talk going on about the value of universities and the value for money that a degree course represents for students, taxpayers and society as a whole. Indeed, I’ve been doing a fair bit of the talking. But I’d also like to take a moment to reflect on what my own time at university did for me. Because there’s all too much focus at the moment on graduate jobs and salaries, which are – in my view – only a very small part of the story.
Clearly, I was at university to study. Which necessitated going to a fair number of lectures, tutorials and such like. And doing a lot of independent study in the university library. In addition to learning about the subjects I was studying, this taught me to:
- listen carefully to what someone is saying / read carefully what someone has written and identify the bits that are useful;
- take contemporaneous notes that I can actually read afterwards;
- evaluate sources of information and detect potential bias;
- identify and critique arguments;
- develop my own arguments in response to those of someone else;
- write down or present my arguments clearly, concisely and persuasively; and
- do all of this at 3 o’clock in the morning when the assignment is due in at 9am that day.
I’d already lived away from home for a while before I went to university, but my time there also taught me to:
- think, talk and act like an adult human being;
- dress like an adult human being (I’ve since regressed);
- maintain a regular supply of meals for myself;
- maintain a regular supply of clean clothes for myself;
- make new friends;
- maintain friendships;
- ditch unwanted friends;
- engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures to my own; and
- swear like a sailor in French, German, Russian, Dutch and Icelandic.
I also had the dubious pleasure of learning how to:
- open and maintain a bank account;
- manage my personal finances and cash flow (my wife still delights in telling people how I once spent my last £20 on a pair of new wetsuit boots);
- come to terms with the fact that I desperately needed glasses and I’d just spent my last £20 on a pair of shiny new wetsuit boots;
- negotiate the bus network of Stoke-on-Trent (yes, I went to Keele!);
- live in a four-student flat in university halls of residence, with shared everything; and
- rent the world’s pokiest flat from the world’s dodgiest landlord (which was, nevertheless, infinitely preferable to living in a four-student flat in university halls of residence, with shared everything).
Clearly, all of this had to be paid for. And even in the pre-tuition fee era my £250 one-off grant from my local authority wasn’t going to get me very far. Which necessitated an introduction to the nefarious world of student jobs. This taught me to:
- serve beer, wine and spirits to my fellow students (which, as you can probably imagine, is neither difficult nor sophisticated);
- develop, mix and serve highly-alcoholic cocktails to my fellow students (ditto);
- serve tea, coffee and pastries to my lecturers (a little more sophisticated, but not much);
- use an industrial dishwasher;
- wait on tables in a variety of restaurants, from the slightly seedy to silver-service super-posh;
- clean toilets to a professional standard (a personal nadir, but a very useful skill to have);
- chauffeur conference guests around campus in a hired Ford Galaxy;
- do handbrake turns (forwards and backwards) on the all-weather hockey pitch in a hired Ford Galaxy;
- mollify irate conference guests who had arrived on campus at 11pm and sent their taxi away, only to find that their accommodation was about a mile and a half away and the hired Ford Galaxy was currently in the workshop for repair;
- manage up to three jobs, plus a full time study load; and
- keep my head above water financially (just).
University is not, of course, just about the academic stuff. And so I also learned to:
- join a range of student societies (and I’m definitely not a joiner-inner);
- manage a student sailing club;
- convince sixty freshers to join a sailing club based in the Midlands (i.e. some way from the sea) that has precisely one (slightly knackered) sailing dinghy and the constituent parts of several more;
- drive a minibus;
- tow trailers behind a minibus;
- call out the AA when the wheel falls off the trailer that you’re towing behind a minibus; and
- talk my way out of trouble when the Athletic Union administrator gets the bill from the AA for transporting a sailing dinghy and trailer from Plymouth to Stoke-on-Trent on the back of a lorry.
I also got to spend a year abroad, working for six months in Cologne, Germany, and studying for another six in Tver, Russia. Through this, I learned to:
- speak much better German;
- speak Russian at all;
- work in a place where people wear suits (something that is, quite frankly, somewhat over-rated);
- extol the benefits of different copper alloys for overhead rail catenary systems (I’m great at dinner parties, but only in German);
- ski cross country;
- drink vodka with mafiosi;
- release frozen tram points using a crowbar;
- talk myself (in Russian) out of getting arrested at Novosibirsk Airport for not complying with the requirements of my visa; and
- type using a Cyrillic keyboard (sadly, I’m still rubbish with the English one).
And finally, while at university I also had the immense good fortune to meet the young woman who is now my wife. In fact, we got married in my final year.
Oh, and I got a degree. But, to be honest, nobody’s ever asked me about that, even in job interviews. They’ve always been far more interested in the other things. And when I’m asked about the value of going to university, and whether it’s all worthwhile, it’s these things that come first to my mind, too.