How to be a student

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

University of Greenwich PR Fraternity (@pr.fraternity on Instagram)
University of Greenwich PR Fraternity (@pr.fraternity on Instagram)

Fees, league tables, student satisfaction, vice-chancellors’ salaries, graduate prospects, two-year degrees, apprenticeships, lifelong learning.

Education is in the news, but what is a prospective student to make of all this? What to study, when and where? Read on for some thoughts on how to answer these questions.

It’s your decision

You may feel pressured by school, by your peers and by your parents to go to university. But this is a life decision that you must make as an independent adult.

If university is to be a valuable investment, then it should provide a lifetime’s value. Your degree will be on your LinkedIn profile (or similar) for decades. That doesn’t mean closing down career options for the future, but that all future choices will stem from this one.

So make an informed decision, having taken every opportunity to visit your target universities and having talked to students and academics there.

Waste time

The most valuable thing a university education will give you is time – and it’s important to waste it.

Let me explain. Your life has been highly structured at school. Working lives are becoming more flexible, but if you attain any level of success you’ll find the work demanding and the hours long.

Your university years will look free and empty in retrospect. So don’t complain about a perceived lack of ‘contact hours’. Instead, take advantage of this space between childhood and full adulthood to learn about yourself, to make friends, to gain independence, to travel, to do some paid and some voluntary work. You need to find out what motivates you to get up in the morning.

Time is the most valuable commodity we’re given. Ask an older person (your grandparents, say).

Follow your passion

Much of the value of a university education is in the intangibles I’ve just outlined. Any degree should give you graduate attributes that employers seek: an ability to think independently and solve problems. You don’t realise this yet but employers don’t hire you for what you know; they hire you for your potential in future. Your degree should above all demonstrate your potential.

I could name PR graduates who’ve gone on to be broadcast journalists, YouTube vloggers and so on. They have been successful even if not directly in the field they initially studied.

I think public relations is a good subject to study, combining academic, intellectual and practical/vocational elements. But I can see that it’s not for everyone.

You should explore whether it’s for you before committing to a three or four year degree course. Samantha Jones in Sex and the City is not a good enough role model to base a life decision on.

We’ll be providing plenty of discussion on career choices and different approaches to learning here at PR Place.

Alternatives to university

They’re relatively new so parents and careers advisers may not have much to say about them. But don’t dismiss apprenticeships as an alternative to university.

With an apprenticeship, you study alongside paid work, so gain work experience and a qualification debt free. There are people who have taken PR apprentices who are now forging careers in public relations. It will be interesting to see how their careers develop alongside their graduate colleagues.

Since many so-called full-time students are having to work to pay their bills, an apprenticeship can be a more joined-up arrangement in that your work and your study are connected.

What advantages does a university degree offer over an apprenticeship? It’s in the space and time it allows you to develop as an individual.

Alternative modes of study

Educators welcome mature students (who wants to teach immature students?). But the current funding system has been designed for school leavers rather than returners to higher education.

Two-year degrees make sense for mature students; and it makes sense to use university facilities for more than half the year. But two year degrees are not for all school leavers who benefit most from the extra time offered by courses with a work placement year (so turning their degree into four years).

Is two years still too long?

There are professional courses that save time and money – and may be a better bet for some. Take the new CIPR Professional PR Certificate. It covers more than the basics of public relations in 48 hours of teaching and is a good choice for ambitious graduates or for those with a couple of years’ experience in PR.

Then there’s the CIPR Professional PR Diploma and the specialist Diplomas suitable for those with more extensive experience who are aiming higher in their careers.

Educational encounters

I first taught someone as an undergraduate student, then again years later as a Diploma candidate. We met a third time when I was invited to lead a session on planning for the wider team. That’s typical of how learning works across extended periods of time and how relationships develop.

You don’t use up your capacity to learn by the age of 21. Indeed, your need to learn becomes stronger as you experience the challenges of the workplace.

Now, after 15 years as a teacher, I’m returning as a student in the hope of completing a more substantial piece of work.

Students become practitioners, then students again. Teachers become students. We’re all involved in a process of continuous learning.

So, since we can never stop learning, perhaps we’re all students. 18-21 year olds are not the only students.