Should you apply to university (if you can’t go to university)?

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.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

The value of education is a hot topic even in the good times. At times of full employment, there will always be some graduates stuck in minimum wage jobs doubting their life choices. There will always be young entrepreneurs making money despite not going to university – or maybe it’s because: there’s an opportunity cost to every decision we make in life.

And yet higher education has continued to expand, despite rising fees and levels of graduate debt. The university experience has become a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood that’s become even more valued as schools have become more results-driven and parents more risk averse about their children’s independence.

Then there’s pandemic times. Students still signed up for university in good numbers last year. They’ve gone to university, but have not been able to benefit from the full university experience.

Read the press headlines and you’d expect a generation of newly-militant students protesting their lockdown restrictions and demanding rent rebates and reduced fees.

My experience of teaching a first year undergraduate class this academic year tells a different story. Attendance is up; course completion is near 100% in terms of assignments submitted achieving a pass grade. Previously, the national dropout rate at first year was almost one in five. Some cited the wrong course. Some lacked motivation. Some had severe health conditions. Many were simply suffering from homesickness.

It’s not perfect, but online teaching offers many upsides. If one of the purposes of higher education is to widen participation among less represented groups, then this is one way to go. Some have stayed at home, saving on travel and accommodation costs. Others feel less likely to be judged by their classmates or challenged by their lecturers compared to face to face classes. The experience may be somewhat less engaging and immersive, but there are fewer barriers to entry. That’s if we can assume availability of basic technology, an internet connection and a quiet space. This may be an issue for some schoolchildren, but less so for university students in my experience.

And yet, there’s more to university than classes, assignments and grades. What about the rite of passage argument? What about the life lessons in budgeting, in shopping, cooking, cleaning and sharing with strangers? What about the social experience; the sports and societies? What about the freedom not to get up in the morning, to push boundaries? How else do you learn about yourself and equip yourself to make big life decisions?

Universities have been keen to market this experience. They often talk up the value of ‘graduateness’, a set of problem-solving skills and evidence-based approaches acquired at university that may elude school leavers or apprentices, say.

But if university is stripped back to just an educational experience, then it’s much harder to defend. Why attend a national or regional university if you’re not able to go there and are only receiving online classes? Why not sign up instead for the classes offered by the most prestigious global institutions – some offered for free? 

Or why not skip university and opt instead for more focused vocational training?

As a new generation of young people faces the latest UCAS deadline, should they continue to assume that university is the automatic choice?

I’ve asked students in my class and in my wider network for their thoughts on these questions and have received a range of opinions from first and final year students, from graduates and from employers.

The student view

Becky Corbett is in her first year studying public relations at Leeds Beckett University. She comments:

‘Having no face to face learning at all has been hard for us students this year, as people like myself who ask millions of questions feel out of place doing this on a video call.’

If it’s online only learning in September my answer would be to defer until you have the chance to envelop yourself into the full university experience. However we do not know what September will bring.

Becky Corbett

‘Public relations has taught me so much and I have only experienced one term and can’t wait for more. With new upcoming trends and the world of social media this course is perfect for me and will become so popular in the years to come!’

Classmate Jack Cameron-Dolan emphasises the vocational aspects of the public relations degree course:

‘Obviously I can’t predict how things will pan out this year in regards to COVID, but if the experience I’ve had so far is anything to go by then I fully expect it to only go up from here as the country slowly deals with the virus and we’re able to return to actual in-person lectures. To add to this, it feels like (to me at least) the topics we’ve studied and continue to study are very centred on the aim of eventual employment. This is great as it feels like what I’m learning will be relevant, and more importantly practical, when it comes to getting a job in the industry.

‘Overall, whilst my time in university has been made more difficult with Covid and not being able to attend in-person classes and lectures, I’ve been really happy with what I’ve experienced so far, and would definitely recommend those who have an interest in public relations to consider coming to study here.’

Sierra Malone, also from this same undergraduate class, brings an international perspective to the discussion.

‘Starting university in the middle of a global pandemic has come with its difficulties but there are also benefits as well. I am an international student. I not only started university this year but I have also moved to a new country. Even if a student is coming from another city in the UK it is challenging to get to know the new area while being safe from Covid-19 and following government guidelines. 

‘However, I have formed close friendships with my flatmates as we have found things to do while staying home during the lockdowns. I don’t think it is any secret that it can be demanding to learn over the internet through video calls. Communicating with classmates and professors is a different experience than in-person classes. It will never be the same as face-to-face but it does get easier and I am certainly grateful for learning how to collaborate from a distance as the skill will likely be used in future workplace opportunities. Although there have been challenges, I have loved starting university this year.’

If you have a passion for public relations and communications and are thinking about starting university, I highly recommend going for it.

I detect a difference in attitude between first year students, who have only experienced restrictions while at university, and final years students, who resent the removal of the world they had known.

Megan Laura Harris from Liverpool John Moores University exemplifies this view. She’s not alone.

Babett Kürschner, an undergraduate studying at London College of Communication, part of University of the Arts, London offers another international perspective. She tells me London has been attractive as a ‘melting pot of cultures’. But this Romanian citizen from her country’s Hungarian minority, who grew up in Austria, has decided against applying for an MA in Cambridge because of Brexit as well as because of Covid restrictions.

Instead, she’ll be pursuing her studies – and perfecting yet another language – in Paris. She cautions university applicants to ‘think carefully about their choices and their reasons for going to university.’ Her lecturers have been trying hard, she says, but the promise of an Arts university was the exhibitions and the advanced technology, and the pandemic has necessarily meant restricted access to these.

Anette Suveges is also at London College of Communication. She recounts the mixed experience of studying during the pandemic:

‘My experience of university during a pandemic is great and terrible at the same time. I miss feeling like a student, going to this building that represents so much, meeting friends and listening to my teachers and great industry specialists in real life. I am missing out on browsing in the library and spotting books that I may have never come across otherwise. I am missing out on socialising and the great technological facilities that I chose UAL for in the first place.

‘I am missing out on creative workshops that would involve getting my hands dirty with paint, clay or printing. I miss Student Union-organised real life events too. However, the benefits of the pandemic is that in lockdown I don’t have to work. Last year I was a furloughed bartender, that allowed me to stay home all the time, therefore I had much more time to study and engage in lectures seminars and discussions much more. The assignment season was easier as I had more time to complete them and I did a better quality job, getting better grades and feedback too.

‘This year I luckily got financial support from Student Finance England, and I am fortunate enough that, like last year, I can stay at home and have loads of time to read all of the recommended readings for my units and complete the assignments with more confidence and less time related stress. I have adapted well, but I definitely do not feel like I have gone to uni for 3 years.

‘Despite the positives, I would definitely not recommend going to uni in a pandemic, and online learning is an absolute headache. Definitely a worse experience than pre-pandemic times. I am sad and frustrated, and I wish I got these years back that I feel like I’ve lost.’

Others make the distinction between undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Sophie Smith is happy with her choice of a Master’s degree at Newcastle University this academic year, but would probably also have deferred her undergraduate study.

Katie Hull, who is also on a Master’s course this year, tells me:

‘University is a life-changing experience. It is a chance to earn a degree that you have been dreaming of throughout your whole life, an opportunity to gain relevant experience in your chosen field and to make friends for life.’

University is not for everyone; it takes motivation and determination to change your outlook on life, but your participation will reap the rewards of having a degree in your chosen field.

Katie Hull

‘I grew up in a little town called Darwen, and originally I never aspired to be a university student, but I found a passion for the world of business and marketing.  During my undergraduate years, I was the women’s rep and the president of the Entrepreneurial Society. It was hard, challenging and some days I felt like I could not carry on with my course, but I persevered and in July 2020 (in the middle of a global health pandemic) I found out I had gained a 2:1 In Business and Marketing at the University of Central Lancashire.

‘Fast forward to January 2020, I am back in education now working towards a postgraduate degree in PR.  My message is clear: go for it and see how university can change your entire life.

‘I remember a conversation I had with a family member after I had announced I was moving 150 miles to Sunderland to study public relations. His exact words were “you’re getting a degree to lie”. 

‘Public Relations can be a negative topic for some, but public relations as an industry is so much more. We’re a crucial tool in communication and right now thousands of people specialising in PR are spreading key messages to the public in a variety of industries from the UK Government to the National Health Service. As an industry, it is always evolving and with a PR  degree, it gives you the opportunity to enter many different fields to work in vital roles such as communications assistant, managerial roles and more experienced roles such as directors. 

‘You’ll learn to bring out your creative flair in planning and executing campaigns and you have the chance to be part of one big family with student memberships available with the CIPR and PRCA.’ 

Teela Clayton completed her MA in Public Relations last year, and is now working for a public relations agency. She had previously worked as a school teacher, so takes a more rounded view of education.

The employer’s view

Students may feel that a university course gives them a strong vocational training, but employers are sometimes more sceptical of the value of public relations degrees. 

Paul Stollery is co-founder of Hard Numbers, a new and fast-growing agency. He doesn’t dismiss degrees, but recognises that there are alternative routes.

Apprenticeships are one of these alternatives, but Stollery acknowledges that there may be upsides to the broader educational experience offered at university.

Simon Lucey is founder of a student marketing agency Hype Collective. He notes the trend to stay closer to home when choosing universities in response to the pandemic restrictions, and also defends the more rounded experience on offer at university.

So, should you stay or should you go? Or should you stay and go?

There will always be a range of opinions on this, and some may even be helpful. Social networks have made it easier than before to listen to the experiences of students who are actually on the course, rather than relying solely on the slick marketing material produced by universities.