It’s that time of year again: freshers’ week is fast approaching and soon a new generation of students will pack up their duvets and newly purchased kettles to begin a fresh chapter of life. For those who remember their own journey, the nostalgia is difficult to suppress: the fear, the adrenaline, the strange single bed waiting at the end of a motorway. University was the next step on the road to independence after the preceding years of important firsts – late-night parties, kisses, exam results – and a chance to prove yourself away from home comforts. For this year’s cohort of students, it’s a different story.
Because, let’s face it, they haven’t had it easy so far. These are the teens whose lives were radically changed by the Covid-19 pandemic; denied those all-important inaugural parties and first trips abroad and, last month, told by Rishi Sunak that they had been “sold a false dream” as he put a cap on the number of students allowed to take a “low-value degree” in England. Senior government ministers also spoke about how university wasn’t all that important now – a complete reversal on the push by most governments across the world to increase rates of secondary school completion and the number of people going into higher education.
Over the past 20 years studying, teaching and working in academic settings, I’ve seen enough first-hand to know that the odds really are stacked against this next generation of prospective graduates – and, potentially, what might help them. So what advice would I give?
First of all, showing up is half the battle. It’s tempting to watch livestreams or recordings at home, but you’ll miss out on random conversations before and after class, or being able to ask questions. The relationships you build at university can last a lifetime, whether through close friendships or inspiring mentorships. You never know, they could even lead to jobs, experiences abroad or a completely new passion.
If these opportunities come around, try to put yourself out there, work hard and know that very few people get their dream job straight away. You may have to take a role that can lead to future opportunities. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”, as sports coaches often say. Everyone faces rejection, especially at university, but it’s those who keep going who head towards their goals. You could apply to 50 jobs, get rejected by 49 and only get one. It’s happened to me. And all everyone else usually sees is the iceberg of success when you land that job. Failure is normal; you just have to pick yourself up and try again.
Despite Sunak’s gloomy indictment, it’s not foolish to dream big, either. In contrast to American culture where ambition is supported with enthusiasm (and perhaps linked too often with false confidence), in Britain it can sometimes feel like a negative attribute; arrogant and unrealistic.
Why shouldn’t you have a goal and go for it fully? What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll still go further than someone who didn’t have a dream at all. Learn to take on constructive criticism and feedback, and see it as a chance to improve rather than becoming defensive. Being able to listen to others and discern what’s useful in what they’re saying, and what’s not, is a crucial life skill.
Really, as well as an academic education, that’s what you’re at university for: to learn about yourself as an adult and how to move around the world in a useful way. Things such as being nice to support staff – rather than using someone as a punching bag if something unfair has happened, or you’re angry or frustrated. Also, planning your days and time so that you don’t waste hours on social media is a good habit to build, not least because, generally, the more time people spend on social media, the lower they feel. Time is precious and should be put towards activities that give you fulfilment and meaning, such as seeing friends or family, studying, having a job that pays the bills, or hobbies, sport or music that you enjoy. Use the time you have to do things that make you feel good.
That includes what you eat, too. Learn how to cook. Or find friends or roommates who do and offer to clean the table and do the dishes (most of the people I asked for an opinion on this said the former. Given I’m still learning to cook, I’ve added the latter). It’s tempting to survive on a diet of cornflakes and beer, but with some basic knowledge and time, you can feed yourself delicious meals and become popular with friends – who might then offer to do the dishes and clean up.
Finally, take advantage of the chance to learn. University is a time to broaden your horizons and be surrounded by others interested in learning more about our world, our history, our literature and art, our bodies and our challenges. Seek out those with different interests and worldviews, read books or listen to podcasts, and try to understand where they’re coming from. At the end of your degree, you might better understand who you are, what gives you happiness and meaning in life, and where you want your career to go, or would like the world to be. At its core, this is what university is all about. That, and buying a new kettle.