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9 things to think about when you choose a university

Uni fees in UK have gone up – a lot

Next year, domestic student fees for undergraduates at UK universities will be £9 000 pounds per year.  Some universities, though not many, will charge less and the fee is the same whether you do an expensive subject like Chemistry or a cheap subject like English or take a subject with with low staff-student ratios like Drama or one where students don’t know or need to meet a member of staff like Management and sign up in their hundreds.

On top of the £9000, students also have to pay for books, computers, stationery, accommodation, food, clothing, heating, clubs and extra activities and not least transport to get to uni and to move from where they live to lecture rooms and clubs and so on.  It’s not cheap going to uni in the UK. It costs a lot more than many people earn per year.

Many people say they cannot afford to go. As I understand it, this is not true.  They might not be afford to do A levels, but if they get good A levels and are accepted into a university, they can get a student loan which they start to pay back after their earning are well above a minimum wage job which they will get if they don’t go to uni or find a rarer-than-hen’s-teeth apprenticeship.

Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

Having taught in universities on three continents for three decades, there are universities and universities; and students find it hard to tell them apart.  There are the well known ones to be sure – the Harvard’s, the Oxford’s. There are those well known to students because their friends have gone there and they anticipate the party scene with relish.  Students pick their university by word-of-mouth.  That’s what we all do when quality is hard to assess from the outside.

But why should fees change our attitude?  Practically, nothing much has changed. Yes students will have to pay back their loans but 60K or whatever is not a lot for a life time’s investment. They will spend that much getting married and unmarried  in their time.  It is the price of a new kitchen if the shops on my high street are correct.

I thought it would be useful to write down three deep misunderstandings about universities.  If you are serious about going ,and equally miffed at the price, then think about these three points and see if they help you choose the university that you want to go to.

As an accountant once wisely said to me, never look at the price ticket until you know what is for sale.  What do you get from going to a university?

#1 University lecturers and professors spend more than half their time on research

A university teaches something quite different from school or a training course at work.  The teachers in a university are “research active”.  What that means is that they are in the business of making knowledge. That is a highly competitive business and they are only deemed to have made knowledge if there is ringing applause world-wide and gasps of “wish I had thought of that”!

It follows that lecturers and professors watch world knowledge, and the way it changes, like proverbial hawks. They are aware of the history of knowledge in their field and they are watching developments, hoping to pounce and work out the key bits to achieve glory in their subject area.

When you listen to them talk, you hear people who see and think about your subject as something that changes.  And from listening to them, you learn not what is great today, but what is changing all the time.

It is true that you want to know what is great today, but what is great today will probably not be great even by the time you graduate.  It certainly won’t be great for the 50 years of your working life. So learning about the way your subject morphs and develops is what is valuable.

Lesson 1a:  Make sure you will be taught by people who are active in your subject matter.  Turn down universities who use juniors or part-timers to teach you.  Check and ruthlessly discard those that do.  The teachers will not have the appreciation of change which is what you have come to learn.

Lesson 1b: Stop expecting someone to lead you by the hand.  The lecturers’ job is to watch the world and to show you the world through their eyes. If the lecturers are playing coach and tutor to you, they are not doing their jobs and you will have nothing to learn from them. Do the work to catch up.  Every student is in the same position. It is the very reason why you came to uni.  To catch up with people who see world-knowledge as something on the march.

Lesson 1c: Choose a uni partly for the other students. Do the other students care about knowing about where the subject is going over the next 50 years and where it came from over the last 500 years.  If not, move on. You will depend on the buzz of other students to catch up with the lecturers and if the other students don’t care, you will find it very difficult to master the steep learning curve.  Look at what students talk about on the chat boards.  If they don’t care, move on. 60K is a lot of money to pay for 3 years of bad parties.

#2 Universities are strict about referencing and plagiarism

The second thing you will notice when you get to university is that lecturers bang on about referencing your essays.  And referencing is a pain to learn. It is bitty and fiddly and lecturers fail you outright when you get it wrong. What is all that about?

I said under the previous point that lecturers are not telling you about a subject, they are telling you about how a subject changes.  So they are telling you about where an idea came from and who is talking about it.  They think geographically with layers of history.  Watch them read and you’ll seem them see a reference and then flick to the back to see the details of the publication.

In their minds they are thinking, hmm Harvard 1921  . . . who else was at Harvard then, what else did this person write, who over here in Europe would not have known because communications across the Atlantic were still slow then.  When they read, they are mapping the changing of the idea so they can pounce and put in the missing step or the next step in the evolution of ideas.

And they are teaching you to do the same.  Why? Because you have 50 years in the game and you want to be on top for 50 years, not on top for 1 and increasingly behind for the next 49.

Provenance, provenance, provenance.  That’s what it is all about.

But you learn something more from this aspect of uni education that is not a prominent part of school or workplace training.  When you track who thought of what, you understand that ideas develop because of the self-interest of the people involved. People at Harvard in 1921 would think up different things from people at Oxford in 1921 because they are surrounded by different people and face different issues.

From watching the provenance of ideas, we begin to appreciate diversity.  We begin to understand the value of other people’s ideas.   Their specific circumstances are different from ours and lead to different thought processes.  The mark of the a university-trained man or woman is that their ears prick up when they realise someone comes from a different walk-of-life because they know that person is likely to think quite differently from us and their thoughts could be very valuable.

Lesson 2a:  Spend your first year learning the reference system, though it is a pain, and get it right. It is the essential mechanic for building the geographical and historical map of change that you need to consistently be on top form for 50 years.

Lesson 2b: Start to appreciate how the circumstances of a person contribute to their thinking (and how your circumstances contribute to your thinking)

Lesson 2c:  Go to a uni where the students differ a lot from each other. It is difficult when you first arrive because you don’t know how to get along socially. But you’ll learn and appreciating the value of differences will give you the grounding to become a world-class negotiator and keep you on top of your game for 50 years.

#3 University is hard

Yes, university is hard, meaning – it is very difficult to know if you are doing well or not.  You can’t just ‘knock off the homework’. You can put 20 hours into something and find you are off the point.  The feedback doesn’t always make sense.  That’s what hard is.  The task isn’t hard when you know how to do it; it’s bloody hard when you don’t and you can’t figure out what  ou are supposed to do or what matters.

Well, that is also part of the design of university education.  When we know how to do a piece of work, we can delegate it to someone who can’t untangle problems – a high school graduate in other words, or a computer, or an outsourcing company in outer space.

It is jobs where the goals aren’t even clear, let alone the steps, that require well trained minds.  All good universities give you work that seems to have several layers of confusion and your job is to work out the layers and turn the confused mess into something orderly.

If you have been listening to how ideas change and where they come from, then you are more than half-way there because you start placing bits and pieces on your mental map and you can work out the story and see where it is going.

But there is another skill that you learn and that is keeping your temper.  When things are hard, our blood pressure goes up and thinking goes down. To think straight, you have to get on top of your temper to think straight. And you will learn to get good at not reacting badly to the feeling of being confused.

You will also stop blaming people. At first, your thought is ‘bad teacher – teacher confused me.’  Soon you will realise you should be saying ‘thank you teacher, you got me there, I had to think a bit.’

Above all, a university man or woman can untangle the mess of all the different ideas that a crowd of people put on the table.  And because you are calmly gathering all these emotionally charged ideas and sorting them out, even if you aren’t the smartest and most knowledgeable player in the room, you are welcome in the room for not just 50 years but probably your remaining 70.

A university should challenge you emotionally; if not, your money and most importantly your valuable three years of young adulthood are being wasted.

Lesson 3a:  Expect instructions to be confused and untangle them calmly.

Lesson3b:  React to your own indignation by realising your alarm is a signal that you haven’t finished the task.

Lesson3c:  Look at student chat boards. Avoid universities where they are full of whining and complaining.  Uni isn’t a cutprice airline.   Find a university where students solve problems and take pride in their emotional aplomb.

 Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

I hope these points help you think through why you might want to go to university and how to choose one that is worth 60K and more importantly, worth 3 of the most valuable years of your life. Choose well, and then get on the steepest learning curve you will ever face.  You will be glad; but if you don’t want any of these things, then by all means go to the nearest and cheapest.   Or consider whether you want to go to uni at all.  You can get information you need off the internet and sometimes you can bypass uni and go straight to a Masters.  Some people have to do it that way round because for one reason or another, they can’t go to uni when they are young.

But if you are going, remember to think like that accountant. Work out exactly what is for sale before you worry if the price tag is right.

This is what a good university (or good university department) provides.

  • A sense of how the world has changed and is changing and will continue changing for the next 50 years of your working life
  • A sense of how the circumstances in which people live affect their thinking and how their perspectives enrich yours
  • An ability to sort out confusion, including lots of emotionally-charged arguments, without getting upset yourself or blaming others.


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