Is Uni worth the Debt??

October 2013

October 2013– It was lunch time at Uni and a friend and I were sat in the campus canteen. The final year had come around and we were basking in our usual student finance riches that arrived at the start of term. It meant that we could enjoy actual canteen food rather than the usual meal deals from the campus shop. There was just one problem though: the dreaded, final year dissertation.

“Levels, this disso is long… You think I’ve got a clue how to do this?” I wrapped stir fry and beef around my fork as my friend chuckled. “You know our literature review is due in a week, right?” he asked me. The pit of my stomach rumbled with anxiety. The truth was, I didn’t know where to start. I had been handed a dissertation at random after being rejected for most of the ones I applied for. I was to work on a dissertation with material I’d never covered before, had no idea how to tackle and with a supervisor who told me in our first meeting: “I don’t typically deal with undergrads, I don’t have much time to spend on you.” I boiled again with indignation. “These lecturers are pricks anyway,” I said. “Most of them had no interest in me after they found out I’d interned at a bank. They know I’m not going into their field now so they aren’t bothering with me.” “Speaking of lecturers,” replied my friend. “There’s one of them there.” He nodded over my shoulder as I scooped more noodles into my mouth. “Isn’t she the one who turned you down from the topic you actually wanted?” He smirked as he said it, clearly recalling my full on rant after I got her email turning me down. I craned my neck to see her striding in our direction. She looked every bit the university lecturer. Tall, thinning stature and a weathered look. Greying hair with wispy, rogue strands falling over her forehead, and a bookish look completed by a dark satchel slung over her shoulder. “I hope she doesn’t come over here,” I thought to myself, but my plea to the universe fell on deaf ears…

“Hello boys!” she exclaimed, smiling curtly as she looked down at us. “Hi Miss, how are you?” I asked. “Good!” she responded. “How are you both getting on? It’s the final year, no time for slacking!” “Yes miss,” my friend and I both chimed together. It felt like we were in school again. “Oh, and I hope there’s no hard feelings about not getting my project,” she placed a consoling hand on my shoulder. “It really is a competitive group and I just felt that there were students with more relevant experience.” “No worries Miss. It happens, no big d –” but she had already cut me off. “Then again, it sounds like you don’t need much more help now do you! With your banking job all lined up!” She let out a rapturous laugh and I chuckled nervously. “Well I still need to get a 2:1 Miss, so I’m not in the clear ye –” but she cut me off again. I took to twisting my fork in my remaining noodles to occupy myself as she continued. “Yes, well the final exams are even more difficult this year, especially my two modules. Students always tend to underestimate them!” I smiled and nodded absentmindedly whilst prodding at a morsel of beef. She gestured passionately. “Plus, there’s all the new material this year on professional practices, which I’m sure will catch people out!” I slowly lifted the fork to my mouth, trying to blank her out. “Well in any case,” she continued. “I suspect even if you do get a 2:1, you’ll probably be out of a job in the first couple of years!” My fork stopped in mid-air, noodles swinging as I tried to process what my lecturer had just said. “Err, I guess?” I responded. Looking thoroughly pleased with herself, she shouldered her satchel, “Well boys, have to run! Good luck with the term!” She squeezed past our table and ambled her way out, my fork still hovering at my mouth. As I watched her disappear through the door, my friend turned around to me, “Did she just tell you’ll get sacked within two years?” I lowered my fork and scratched my head. “I think she did…” We both looked at each other for a second as it sunk in. We burst into laughter, banging on the table and clapping until people started looking at us. “Yeah, she took the piss out of me! Minor though, even if I do get sacked early, what will I really lose?” And with that comforting thought, I polished off the last of my stir fry.

Today – Education, education, education. It was the mantra that got Tony Blair into power in 1997 when I was but a young lad getting kicked out of my primary school classes. Now school for me was a blast, being a carefree and young man, I really felt no pressure and everything felt easy. However, when I got into college and university, I found it was a completely different story. Uni can be confusing, demanding and just an overall overwhelming experience, even if you feel prepared for it. The above story is a funny one to tell but personality clashes with lecturers amongst other challenges can be tricky hurdles for students to navigate as they take their first, feeble steps into adult life. So, coming from someone who’s been there and done that, here are a few tips for those thinking about, currently attending or applying to university.

The first thing you learn once you’ve started your degree is that unfortunately, your degree is often irrelevant. If you’re going to be a doctor, then yes, you’ll need to demonstrate that you know the difference between a common cold and an STD. Likewise, if you want to build bridges, you’ll need to know some basic engineering principles. However, for the vast majority of careers, most of the time your degree is either irrelevant or very poorly equips you for the working world. Finance certainly accommodates candidates from a broad range of degree disciplines, with most of the roles very much teachable. The most important thing you’ll need to do is network, the old saying – “It’s not what you know, but who you know” – holds pretty firm across most industries. Work placements, shadowing, careers fair and the like are all key.

The second thing you’ll learn about Uni is that your lecturers may be as useful to you as a dead smart phone, fairly expensive, not very reactive. Some lecturers can be a nightmare to deal with, whether it be following up on a lecture, asking a simple question, and of course, dealing with them for the dreaded dissertation. Most of the time the issue is that lecturers are researchers or professionals first and lecturers second, so it never really feels like they’re invested in you like your early education teachers were. This is your problem to tackle though. Uni life is about being responsible for making sure you do well. If your lecturer is unresponsive, go and see them. If their time is limited, ask them to be clear of what’s expected of you so you don’t need to see them often. I saw my dissertation supervisor twice in my entire year and ended up scoring near 90%. The formula was simple, I asked at the beginning of the year exactly what was expected of me, emailed periodically to make sure I was on track and pretty much confirmed what I’d be getting before the results even came out. Always get clarity of what’s expected of you.

Friends and social circles are a huge part of going to university too. Campus accommodation, societies, lecturers and seminars mean that you have a vast range of people to deal with daily, and for many students, this is a new experience. It sounds simple but having good friends is so important. Dealing with the pressures of university, getting good grades, staying on top of money, and relationships; these can all add up and it’s often your friends that support you, so a strong group can be lifesaving. Check on your friends, join societies, be open to meeting people – it all helps with building your network and mental health.

I guess I wouldn’t be The Poor Banker if I didn’t have any money advice. The truth is, if you’re a student, money is going to be tight and so you should remember to: Live within your means. If your course accommodates for it, get a part time job. There are several student filled roles on campus that you can apply to as well as local towns that will accommodate. If you can’t, it’s not the end of the world. There are several facilities at a student’s disposal to ensure that money isn’t an issue. Aside from maintenance loans and grants, there are often thrift groups that will swap and exchange services for goods where possible. If you apply and get summer or yearlong internships, be sure to save some money for when you go back to Uni. There’s nothing better than knowing you’re financially comfortable in your final, most challenging year at Uni.

To conclude, there’s many young people that have begun to question the relevance of university with the rise of many other valid career routes like apprenticeships for example. Uni does come with its downsides; however, the combined experience of not just academic achievement but building confidence, building networks and becoming responsible is the ideal segue into adult life.

The Poor Banker