“Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible. Learning is making it possible for yourself.”
― Paulo Coelho
We are often told that university is one of the “best routes to success”. Through school and college, we know what to expect: parties, lifelong friends, lecturers who are the best in their field, and a pathway into employment – for many, university promises to be the bridge between being a kid and becoming a fully-fledged adult. It is the beginning of many people’s professional careers, and we are told these years of study are the best years of our lives.
And for some, it is everything they wanted. But that is not the case for everybody. It seems that for more and more young people it is harder to adjust to life after university, in terms of both their employability skills and their emotional wellbeing.
A Degree Alone Is Not Enough
We now live in a world where more and more people can go to university and get a degree – and that is great. Everybody should have an equal chance to get a qualification. However, there is evidence that employers are looking for more out of their graduates than their degree. In 2017 BBC news spoke to over 170 organisations and it was the consensus that they thought university graduates lacked the ‘fundamental understanding of the world of work.’ This shows how the widespread belief that completing this life plan: progressing from school to college to university to work, is no longer effective in terms of employability. Companies want more from graduates than what graduates thought they needed to offer. Instead of achieving the future, they thought their studies would secure, young graduates, struggle with rejection and disappointment.
Aside from the disenchantment from not finding jobs, many young graduates seem to struggle to emotionally adjust after university. HE graduate outcomes data compiled research on the mental health of graduates and their graph found that 50% of them felt overly anxious on a daily basis. Furthermore, just under 50% who found full-time employment were also experiencing anxiety, which indicates that there is an issue with the university experience in terms of how it prepares students professionally and emotionally for the future.
It is not so simple to just blame this solely on the institution of university. Higher education can have a positive and fulfilling experience for those who are ready for it. It gives young people their first chance of full independence and provides an opportunity for a clean slate for young people to discover who they are and what life they want to lead.
But university cannot be the only place and time for us to learn these things.
At the age of eighteen, I was unsure about university. I had the A-Levels I needed and had a lot of interests outside of my studies. But I had no vision of myself as an adult, no idea what I wanted from life and what career would fulfil me. I chose to go to university due to the mixture of a gap year filled with unsatisfying employment; parents who were desperate to have their daughter be the first member of the family to get a degree; and an increasing fear of the void that I began to see my future as. I didn’t go for the right reasons, and I certainly did not get what I wanted from it.
I do not blame university itself for my experience, and I have still learnt a lot from my time there. I simply think I would have benefited from more emotional support – I was under pressure to begin something I was not ready for and struggled when I couldn’t put everything in place for my future like I believed I would.
Like me, for some people, the pressure to complete their education and start a degree at the age of eighteen and nineteen doesn’t reap positive results. The charity ‘Mind’ claims that there is such a high rate of mental illness in students and graduates in their early twenties because around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness exhibit their first episode before the age of twenty-five. Young people are faced with the pressure of securing their future and making the right choice about their career, but so many are still struggling to learn how to deal with their own thoughts and feelings. Some students sacrifice their own mental well-being for their grade. They may get the grade, but at the cost of their health, their self-esteem and their faith in what they were working for.
University can be brilliant for some but so damaging for others. Graduates can suffer from increasing disenchantment when their life after university doesn’t progress in the way they thought. They have the paper saying they got the right grade, but that paper is not a ticket to success. It never was, and the view that it is needs to be addressed.
It is not enough to just blame the level of teaching or the lack of mental support that universities offer as it is not that simple. As students, we must also take responsibility for ourselves. Parents and older siblings too also have a responsibility to mentor and guide younger people. We can blame the system as much as we want but how are we “being the change we want to see” as Mahatma Gandhi once said. There are many ways that students can become more prepared for the emotional and professional challenges that they will face after leaving school and university. These are actions that both the universities and the students themselves can take.
“Education is not the learning of facts but training of the mind to think.”
― Albert Einstein
Firstly, as students we can take responsibility for our own education, we can invest in books to guide us, speak to those in the workplace, find mentors and seek out as many opportunities to learn about the wider world as we can. We can seek out volunteering opportunities while at university and afterwards, we can seek to build our network. There are opportunities that many universities provide to give practical help to improve the professional skills of their students. The industrial placements that many universities offer is one such way. These industrial placements help students to understand their workplace of interest in practice, and unlike many internships, these paid placements will have the university working alongside prestigious companies to make sure that students are undergoing tasks relevant to their area of study – not just making tea! The University of Salford asked some of their students to reflect on their industrial placements. One such student was Ruksana Akter, who studied Accounting and Finance, and she related how much she treasured her year in industry and how it married with her studies and gave her a much better chance at a professional career after university:
“The course provided me with basic knowledge of certain aspects of accounting […] When you do it in a real-life setting, you understand it a bit more, because you’re physically having to work out the problems.”
Reading about Ruksana’s experiences shows how by providing more opportunities in industry universities can help their students expect what will come afterwards. Most importantly it would instil a sense of confidence and security in young people that doesn’t seem to come from studying alone. Earning a qualification from a school is nothing if the person has no confidence in themselves when it comes to the world outside.
As well as practical assistance, graduates should feel emotionally supported from their time at university. Things such as mentoring groups, stable careers advice and access to counselling would aid students in learning to develop themselves personally as well as academically. With the right guidance, students can progress into their first working years with more self-esteem and a network of support to help get them through the rejections and the achievements alike.
University can be used to support young people in finding out how to learn from every aspect of their life and it shouldn’t be considered as a full-stop to our time learning. Some of the most brilliant minds learnt from their degree what they didn’t want to do with their life. Charles Darwin dropped out of medical school – when he should have been learning how to perform surgery, he preferred to take long walks in nature and collect beetles. William Shakespeare never finished school and left at 13. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg and many other successful people are also college dropouts. University is a brilliant tool, but it is not the only path to success, happiness and fulfilment. In fact in many cases it can hinder and stifle creativity.
As a nineteen-year-old, I felt pressure to go to university and complete my degree, and I thought after that everything would fall into place around me because I did. During my time there I felt aimless and ashamed, as if I were wasting my opportunity to have a happy future because I was not getting everything out of it I should have. I have spent a whole year as a graduate, and I still have no idea where my life is going. But that is okay. We all have so much to learn about ourselves and the world around us after education and should spend our entire lives doing this. Rather than pressuring young people to secure their futures in a world that nowadays can easily turn on its head, university should be a time for young people to understand that we should always try to learn – because to always learn is to live life to its fullest.
BBC News Graduate Aren't Skilled Enough According To Employers
HESA Statistics On Well-Being of Graduates
Mind On Student Mental Health
University of Salford - Finance Student Review