University & I

It feels a little surreal to be saying it, but my education career is over.  Words at times I never thought I’d actually be able to say!

I’m now a graduate of the University of Aberdeen, and ready to finally go out into the big, bad world of work.  My four years have armed me with the skills and experiences I need to find myself a good job in the field that I want and I’ll soon be able to earn plenty money to make sure my own days of student-loan-enforced-austerity are behind me.

I wish that was quite how it was, at least.

Going through university has been an experience to say the least, and one that on the whole I’ve been glad to go through, but I can’t quite say it was a revelation or the best years of my life or anything like that.

To understand why, I’ll go back to before university began.

In secondary school the entire focus of education and the forward planning for after leaving the place was on university for me and the vast majority of people.  We’d have our social education classes in fifth and sixth year and they’d almost entirely be about applying for university and exactly how to do that.

I think I was always destined for uni.  As much as I wasn’t a fan of school, I recognised that it was the best option to get myself jobs.  I wanted to become a journalist, and I’d need some higher qualifications to do that.  So the focus on university for me might well have helped.

But for many, many people in my year university was not the best option for them but still it was pushed upon us every week.  For some this meant that valuable social education classes were completely wasted on them, as they’d have benefitted far more from discussion of college places, apprenticeships or plain job hunting.  For others, the ones I feel sorriest for, they were swept away by the whole university onslaught and ended up applying for that and believing that was their future.  Some of them ended up leaving within months of reaching, for a variety of different reasons.  If they honestly felt university was the best option for them, then I’m delighted they followed their dreams – but the thing is that I think many knew that it wasn’t but still went on anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with taking time and trying different things to see what you want to do in life, and I think having that option with regards to university would have been good for many people.

All of these are very general comments about university, and I feel they ring true no matter where it is you do your studying.

Aberdeen was an okay place to live, although in so many ways it was the middle ground between what life was like at home and where I’d ideally like to be (Glasgow, or perhaps Edinburgh).  As a student there’s plenty there for you – with the same feel of a big city with pubs, nightclubs, restaurants and shops galore – but there was still a sense of the place being rather small.  That might be a good thing in some people’s eyes, but for me it felt quite limiting.  The city isn’t one that’s very warm and friendly in either a personable or weather sense.  The cold, grey granite buildings and the city’s similar weather make it feel so gloomy and dark most of the time and it’s hardly encouraging you to get on with your studies.  The campus itself bucks the trend, but the rest of the city isn’t nice at all.

Then there’s the cost of the place – as the price of rent in the city is second only to London because of the oil boom and many people buying flats just to use on the odd occasion when they’re transferring on or offshore.  There’s little in the way of support for student renters, and even outright hostility from the Old Aberdeen Community Council who have kept up an ill-informed campaign against HMO properties which persecutes the students who make up the vast majority of the areas’ population during term-time.

Aberdeen’s main draw was probably how close it was to my home in Dingwall though, and the 2-and-a-half-hour journey back and forth every few weekends wasn’t so bad at all.  That meant too that when you’ve had enough of Aberdeen it was easy to pick up and go.  The same was true for travelling down south to the bigger cities too, and for that Aberdeen did well.

The way in which uni was run, at least at Aberdeen, was actually much better than secondary school was, to give it its’ due, but it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination this academic utopia that many people envision when they think of university, and reflected many of the city’s lack of qualities.

Organisationally the university was at times a shambles, and the way in which the technical side of the university’s courses and registrations are handled should be an embarrassment.  Almost every year there was some major disaster in terms of course registration that meant extra legwork for myself and my lecturers to sort things out.  Even for graduation we were left in the lurch until the week beforehand as to how many tickets we’d get – which for me wasn’t a big deal but for a university with thousands of international students seemed a little unfair, as they’d need to organise last-minute transport or wait until November to official mark the end of uni.  I was lucky that I haven’t suffered any major setbacks because of it, but some people I know have come close to failing to graduate because the University’s organisation is to blame.

Student politics at the university was also a complete joke, with the university’s student association (AUSA) being ineffective and inept at almost every level.  Whether that was because the university barely heeded the opinion of students – such as when the referendum on when to hold exams was completely ignored by the University’s board; because AUSA was more focussed on internal politics than representing students – such as this year when it’s AGM wasn’t quorate; or because they simply didn’t put things into action – as this scorecard of achievement suggests – is up for debate.  What is certain though is that the students of Aberdeen University aren’t represented in their University or their community as well as they should be, and this creates stresses and strains upon people that are under enough pressure as it is.

I had hoped that university would be a bit less of the “learning-to-the-exam” sort of teaching that secondary school had become by the end, and in some regards it was.  Many of the courses I took were fascinating, in-depth discussions of topics that not only covered events but also gave us the tools to discover more for ourselves.  The Gaelic culture courses I took were, in particular, great at doing this.

However, university proved to be much like school in that learning was a process of jumping through hoops to prove what you’ve learned rather than taking a wider and more realistic approach to learning.  Exams, although I faced fewer of them as I went on, were still the main way of assessing performance and this created an artificial process by which people learned in-depth about two or three features of their course rather than taking it all in.  For several courses I could easily have sat in two or three of the lectures in the semester at most because they were the only ones I would have needed to get information I needed to take the exam.  It shouldn’t be like that.

Now at the end of it, I have been left in a bit of a strange situation.  I’ve found myself a job, and one that I enjoy and am very much grateful for, but when looking for things in Gaelic or journalism or anything policy related I found almost nothing that was really what I considered “worth” my time at uni.  Whether it was because salaries were low (with graduate internships paying apprentice wages being an example) or positions simply weren’t available, the process of putting my degree into practice is going to have to wait a while.

I’m going to be far from alone in this problem, and it’s one that I think that is at the crux of the problem with university.  Going through another four years of education, after already going through thirteen, should be only to provide you with a real career that you can launch into.  What’s the point if you do another four years and end up no further on in that career than when you started?

I’ve learned things at university, and I do believe I have a much greater understanding of the Gaelic language, its culture, the theory of politics and what it means in certain context.  I’ve also learned how to research things in more detail, be more critical of what’s in front of me and how to understand the opposing side of an argument.  It’s this second set of skills that I’m most grateful for, and I believe they are the ones that put me in a good position to go out and get jobs and be a more thoughtful person.  I’m glad I had the chance to study subjects I enjoyed, but I honestly believe the skills I would have learned doing almost any other degree would be the same – just that I wouldn’t be quite as engaged with the topics.

University wasn’t a wholly negative experience though at all.  I’ve made great friends and kept in touch with people from home who also stayed in Aberdeen and they made the time worthwhile.

Learning and achieving at uni make you feel great, and it’s fantastic to be able to sit and discuss and air your opinions with people from all over the world.  Uni makes you feel like you actually have something to contribute, and that’s a powerful feeling that can help you take charge of other areas in your life.

These are the things that make going to uni worth it, and they’re the things that I hope everyone who wants to can have the chance to experience.

University is a brilliant opportunity for people and it should always be an option that is free for anyone to take, but the lasting feeling I have from my four years in Aberdeen is that it shouldn’t be the defining quality of someone’s education.  Secondary school should be the launch pad from which your work career takes off, and we should start moving the focus from university to secondary school.

We need to make sure that college places, apprenticeships and jobs are offered just as freely to school children who are, in my experience, almost entirely unsure as to what they want to do with their lives.  This is especially true for people in the Highlands, who may feel forced to leave not only home but their home region in an attempt to further themselves.

So I’m done uni, and I couldn’t be more delighted.  Rather than feeling a chapter of life has closed, I’m looking forward to seeing how the next chapter pans out.  And at the end of it all, isn’t that what uni is all about?

As a brief aside, one of the things about university I enjoyed least was the idea that I’d pour my heart and soul into essays that only one or two people would read.  Now that I’ve graduated though, I guess it’s alright for me to share my university essays in full online here.

Browse through the uni tag on site here to have a look at all of the pieces I’ve submitted over my four years, or visit this page which gives a year by year breakdown of what I’ve done.

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