Saunders' Corner

University: a good life experience?

By Sam Saunders

Now, there seems to be a tendency when reaching the end of a university degree to focus only on careers and future employability. This is not without reason. There are and should be concerns over how many transferable skills a degree actually provides students with, as obtaining a job is one of the key reasons that people decide to go to university. However, I do think that this becomes too much of a focus as we approach the end of our degrees, and the experiences and skills that students gain during their time at university seem to be forgotten. That’s what I want to talk about in this column; why the benefits of university as a life experience should be discussed further, as these are advantages that are rarely spoken of when choosing between employment or study.

As previously mentioned, careers are a huge focus of final year, and the university, at least in my view, does spend an awful lot of time trying to provide services to students to improve their employability, as well as hosting fairs and events so that students are well informed about their future options. The Cardiff Award programme, which seeks to improve the future employability of students, is very good, and given that it’s completely free, I think that more students should take up this opportunity. As well as the traditional suite of CV and cover letter skills, the award also informs students about commercial awareness and how to use LinkedIn effectively.

These are invaluable skills, no doubt, but there have always been concerns about how a degree course prepares students for their future careers. It’s here that I think the focus should shift from this to the other skills that university allows you to develop over a three/four-year degree course. For example, when I first arrived in Cardiff, this was the first time I had lived away from home, and in a large-ish city to boot. This was overwhelming at first, but the fact that I was studying, had more free time than if I had been in full-time employment and had less pressure because my first-year did not contribute to my overall degree mark, made the process a lot smoother. It certainly meant that when I had to do it again in France on my year abroad, I knew that I had to get out and explore the city in order to feel more comfortable in my new surroundings. This also ensures that in the future, graduates won’t feel reticent to accept a job offer in a new city, or the chance to take a promotion somewhere completely new, as the majority have already experienced drastic change thanks to their studies.

Another thing which I feel is often taken for granted by students is the fact that most of them now have a much better idea of how to look after themselves. When I came to university, I had used a washing machine and cooked for myself before, but not for months on end, so that was a clear shock. Again, however, this was a hurdle that myself and many others have negotiated thanks to the freedom that first year offers students, as well as a lot of advice from my parents. It’s something that is key, and whilst ensuring that you’ve got enough clean clothes and enough food in the house to last the week might seem like an incredibly basic thing, it’s key to living a fulfilling adult life and necessary when holding down a full-time job.

Financial management (or mis-management in some cases) is certainly a big bonus of studying at university. I’m not sure about any of you reading this, but my first student loan instalment still represents the biggest chunk of money I’ve ever been given in one go. Thus, managing this effectively becomes a cornerstone of your university experience, whether that’s through jokes about people’s overdrafts or genuine financial pressure, these are things that will be useful to students in later life, and perhaps make us more appreciative of the financial benefits of employment after university. Now, I know that many people will say that the nature of the current student loans system far outweighs any benefits that can be drawn from it. I would disagree however, as managing your finances will be an integral part of your adult life. Whilst I agree that the current loans system must be reformed and is not currently fit for purpose, it is ludicrous to suggest there are no benefits to it, including making students capable of managing their own finances.

Time management is also an advantage to studying at university, as many students take up extra-curricular activities to make their time in Cardiff more fulfilling. This, by necessity, requires good time management, or the development of these skills, as students have to balance their studies and activities that they enjoy. Not too dissimilar from the working world eh? Obviously, good time management is a positive for any future employer, as negotiating university deadlines is excellent preparation for doing the same thing at work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, university introduces you to more people than you’ve probably ever met before, which is incredibly important for numerous reasons. Firstly, it allows you to find like-minded people, meet up with them, and make new friends in an unknown and potentially hostile environment; a valuable skill for entering the workplace or a graduate job. Secondly, and on the other hand, there will be many people who you don’t get on with and trying to ensure you can deal with them, as well as potentially making a group project work in difficult circumstances are good challenges, even if they don’t seem it at the time. Imagine how well these experiences will serve you when you have to deal with a difficult co-worker! This is another example of the small ways in which university aids and informs students with skills that they will be able to use later in life.

Overall, I just want to remind people about how much university continues to offer the people who choose higher education, without focusing too much on careers or concerns over future employment. I feel that university, in particular first year, often offers young people a chance to grow up a bit more and to learn how to look after themselves whilst living without the support structures of their families. I mean, I would have been quite clueless if I’d paired a full-time apprenticeship/job with living away from home for the first time straight after the end of sixth-form. I for one think it’s time we gave the university experience a bit less stick.

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