When I joined university nine years ago, I was so excited about my future. Like many people out there, university was what I’d worked my whole towards; it was the only reason I’d slaved away at my homework and extracurricular activities since the age of ten.
In my mind, University was where I would truly find myself; where I would fall in love, make lifelong friends, discover my career prospects and transition from sheltered-child to respectable and valuable adult.
Except I didn’t meet anyone romantically (in fact, I barely met anyone), I graduated with zero career guidance or prospects and I came out feeling more lost and confused than before I went in.
So, here’s the big question everyone wants to know the answer to:
was university worth it?
From a humanity student’s perspective, this hasn’t been the easiest question to answer. I mulled over it a lot in December 2018 as I was cleaning up spilt milk from yet another daily milk explosion at the supermarket I worked in; the same supermarket chain I worked in at age eighteen, eight years before I accumulated over £30K worth of debt.
I’m aware of how lucky I am. I not only attended university in the UK where the fees are less extortionate but also in the years before the UK tuition fees tripled in price and when the government gave maintenance grants to students from low-income households. Had I attended university a year later, I would be looking at a debt closer to £70K.
So, to be a little more efficient in evaluating the worthiness of a humanities degree, let’s break this topic down into sections. The starting point is the most obvious factor:
Employability and earnings potential.
Employability and earnings potential after graduation depends on the subject you study. When people hear that I’ve earned minimum wage my whole life but have a master’s degree, they’re usually confused about how that’s even possible.
Education statuses don’t secure employment or guarantee high salaries unless the degree is in a very specific field of research which has a large amount of public, governmental or corporate funding.
Throughout my years of retail and telephone marketing sales, I met a wealth of highly educated people in jobs unrelated to their degrees, all of whom were earning minimum wage. I made coffees alongside psychology doctorates and stickered out-of-date produce with a doctorate of Heideggerian philosophy.
The “struggling artist” is a trope for a reason; employment prospects are lower for those who study arts and humanities, particularly in terms of income. A study conducted by Satsuma loans in 2019 revealed that the average salary of a Creative Arts and Design student one year after graduating was just £14,900, and after ten years, that only rose to an average of £23,300.
Humanities and Liberal Arts students followed a similar fate, as their average income one year after graduation was £17,800 and that only rose to an average of £22,800 after ten years.
However, students in fields such as engineering earned on average £26,500 one year after graduation, and that average salary increased to £41,200 ten years later.
With this in mind, my decision to do two humanities degrees was a foolish one, but I didn’t take my master’s degree on a whim. I had every intention of pursuing academia through to the end. I wanted to earn a doctorate and become a lecturer, but life completely obliterated my plans when my dissertation dragged my overall degree score to 2:1. I didn’t get the first necessary for funding and with a very specific subject matter, I couldn’t find funding elsewhere.
So, I graduated with two degrees in literature and over six years of retail experience under my belt: employment prospects didn’t look too great.
It was only when I stopped relying on the traditional route to earn an income and became a freelancer I improved my own earnings potential. However, my traditional, expensive education didn’t set me up for this career path.
The “University Experience”
Ah yes, the university experience. It wasn’t what I’d imagined it to be, but that’s my fault for imagining the experience through the filter of An Extremely Goofy Movie.
The university experience marketed to me was one of late-nights, clubbing, drinking to excess, eating fried chicken at 3 am at the local and rather sketchy looking fried chicken shop and joining societies and clubs which already had established hierarchies within them.
I didn’t fit the “university experience” offered to me, but I recognise that I’m an anomaly. I know many people who loved university, mainly for the communities they made within societies, clubs and nights out. Had I not been suffering from an eating disorder during my studies, I may have been able to brave attending more societies and groups.
Unfortunately, it’s genuinely hard to make friends with young adults when you look like Jack skeleton (that childlike judgemental-nature is still strong in early adulthood years).
My health circumstances meant I was horrifically lonely; I rarely got the support I needed and most of the education I garnered was through the books I read at the library rather than the classes I attended.
I make jokes that going to university is a ruse for paying for the most expensive library card annual pass ever but, in all seriousness, that’s what most of the debt went towards (we all know it’s not going towards the poor lecturers’ salaries).
You need not go to university to meet new people, travel the world, make lifelong friends, read books or learn something new.
The only experience unique to university is one of time.
How you experience time is wholly unique to university life: the structures imposed on you are minimal and loosely monitored and the generous freedom you’re given is unsupervised. You have some adult responsibilities (depending on how financially independent you are), but most your time is yours for the making.
The Freedom to Learn
Now, this is where my somewhat-negative tilt slides entirely. Despite being lonely, developing a sleuth of life-threatening mental health issues and graduating with two deeply unemployable degrees, I loved university.
My university days were the best days of my life and I’ll never get that life experience back. Whenever I think about my university, my early morning commutes, and the days spent at the library, my heart weeps.
Until I went to university, I had never had full permission to be myself or find out who I wanted to be without the leering eyes of parental expectations or close-knitted peer-pressure.
At university, nobody knew I existed; I could go weeks without opening my dorm room with no one noticing my absence and I found that so liberating.
University gave me permission to be fully independent and alone and, in some ways, I really thrived in that culture.
Anonymity was what I needed at that point in my life, and I needed to go through what I did alone to develop into the woman I am today.
Throughout those beautifully abstract and unreal years, I read unapologetically every, single day. I, literally, nearly gave my life to reading because I was so obsessed with doing nothing else and I discovered, in that peaceful isolation, what I wanted to learn about, what I was interested in and what parts of my mind wanted to grow.
For the first time in my life, learning wasn’t about keeping up appearances, ticking boxes for university application processes, exams or appeasing parents.
Learning was, finally, for me, and I felt so free.
A lot of the things which happened to me at university wouldn’t have happened had I not gone. Whilst some of those experiences were life-threatening circumstances, I survived, and I learned what it was like to push myself to the brink of life and crawl back from the edge with no help or support.
It would have been nice not to have gotten into £30K debt to undergo such trepidations, but I suppose the most important lessons in life are learned the hard way.
So, was university worth the money?
It really depends on your definition of worth.
In my case, financially, socially and employability speaking, going to university wasn’t worth the money, despite attending university when the fees were cheaper.
I left university broke, in debt, lonely, unwell, unskilled and confused.
I didn’t have a support network, and I didn’t know where I wanted to go professionally. Unfortunately, being a somewhat expert in 20th Century Irish politics and the modernist employment of classicism as a political tool in literature isn’t a desirable knowledge base for many high-paying employers.
Yet despite not travelling the world, meeting new people or gaining an employable degree, I wouldn’t take back any of it.
I accept all the debt I’ve accumulated and I’m happy to pay it back slowly over the rest of my life because I honestly don’t think I can put a price on what I went through, mentally and physically.
What I paid for through the guise of attending university were space, time and an expensive library card.
But I cannot put a price on learning the hard way that life that is worth living, and that there is more to me than what others made me believe.