"I felt like I’d failed": how it feels to turn down university

University can be great for many people, but it can also be used as a stick to beat those who don't conform to its mould. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When I was a teenager I was going to be a doctor. That was my plan. I spent my evenings alternating between Holby City and Grey’s Anatomy, and had a pretty firm idea of what doctoring was about. I’d chosen my medical school by the age of 16 and I daydreamed about wearing green scrubs and running down corridors shouting “move, we’re gonna lose him!”, scooting a defibrillator along on a trolley. 

Then I got my GCSE results. It’s not that I’d done badly – I just hadn’t done as well as you probably should if your career goals include saving the lives of the general public. I had to beg my soon-to-be head of sixth form to let me do Biology, as I hadn’t made the grade to enroll on the A Level. She relented. I quit the course one month in.

When I first started secondary school, I’d really enjoyed it; I thought of myself as an intelligent student who was good at writing and learning. I listened in lessons, handed in homework on time and was, on all accounts, someone you'd describe as a bit of a nerd. Something in my brain seemed to switch off when I reached A Levels; I was overwhelmed with stress, the amount of pressure I placed on myself to do well proving too much to cope with. I wanted to excel – to get the kind of grades that make the Daily Mail take your picture while you clutch your results, jumping in mid air. In reality, I stalled. 

The sixth form I attended was overwhelmingly focused on the idea that pupils should go to university. We had assemblies about UCAS, and lessons on what we could expect from student life. General studies lessons were overtaken by sessions about writing personal statements. If anyone expressed an interest in pursuing an alternative path to university, they were met with a degree of bafflement from teachers – and the suggestion they work on their CVs. 

The numerous university prospectuses I requested ended up stacked under my bed. At the back of my mind, I knew my heart wasn't in it, but I still felt university was the only option. All of my friends were planning to go. Though neither of my two elder brothers had attended university, I felt a special pressure, as the last child left, to make my parents proud.

Over the course of the two years studying A levels, my ambitions were erratic: I wanted to be a doctor, a paramedic, a nurse; a solicitor, a barrister, an international human rights lawyer. I wanted to study criminology. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a fashion designer. The list was endless. I was tired. 

In the end, against my better judgement, I applied for a BA(Hons) course in fashion marketing at the University of Northampton. I liked clothes, I liked writing. Although I didn’t really know what marketing was, it sounded fancy – and my first-choice university included an educational trip to New York. By the end of the two years studying A Levels, I burnt out, trading courses I'd originally elected for easier choices. After being diagnosed with depression, I stopped attending most of my lessons.

On results day, I got CCD; neither terrible nor excellent. I wasn’t accepted at my first-choice university, which I didn’t actually want to go to. I feigned excitement when I was accepted at my second choice, and went along with the motions, but eventually I broke, and cancelled my place. I felt like I’d failed, like the seven years spent in school had been for nothing. I could see little ahead of me except a looming expectation of university, which all I could do was run from. 

Instead of starting at university, I started therapy. A few months passed and I blagged a social media job at a small start-up in Cambridge. Writing about fashion on a very basic blog, and sharing my articles on Twitter with other writers, led me towards journalism. I snatched weekends and evenings to write alongside my day-job, and applied once more to university - this time, to study journalism. In the end, I stumbled across an advert for an apprenticeship with the Evening Standard and Independent, and landed a spot as one of three apprentices on the scheme, once again putting off university.

The scheme was NCTJ accredited, one of the first of its kind. I’ll admit I struggled returning to the classroom, but I loved being in the work environment. Decades ago, journalism was a hands-on job that people could break into without degrees or further education. Now it’s more common for journalists to have been to university – and then to attend a journalism postgraduate course – all at vast expense. As a school leaver attempting to find a job, I was constantly disheartened by the many adverts for entry-level jobs stipulating applicants have at least two years experience. I was incredibly lucky to find small businesses that took a chance on me right at the beginning of my career, and gave me the space to develop the skills I use today. 

Now, when I tell people I don't have a degree, the response is more often than not a patronising “oh really? good for you”. Yet academia isn’t for everyone. I was lucky to get an apprenticeship, and my experience was testimony to the importance of providing alternative routes. We need to invest in educating college-aged students about working life, and to bolster entry-level jobs – actual entry level jobs, not entry level jobs that require two years experience and a postgraduate degree. More than anything, we need to recognise that university isn't the only path. It can be great for a number of people, but it can also be used as a stick to beat those who don't conform to its mould.