What do you think of when you picture university life? Every generation has its popular image from Brideshead Revisited to Animal House, from Educating Rita to The Young Ones and today's Fresh Meat. These have been (one hopes) largely based more in fiction than fact and often had very little to do with studying itself and more to do with coming of age... So what is the modern university experience really like?
In recent decades, the number of undergraduates entering university has risen exponentially and within some families the expectation of becoming a student after school or college is a given. Similarly, many entry level roles in a number of industries automatically require applicants to have a degree and some even specify the classification (a first, 2:1, 2:2, etc). That said, it is worth noting that these are the same industries that are now embracing apprenticeship programmes and helping train, develop and qualify employees on the job.
Since it's more commonplace to join the workforce with a degree, universities offer many more subjects and vocation-focused courses these days, and it's possible to study a degree in almost any discipline or field. The distinction between vocational and scholarly degrees is eroding, since universities are increasingly having to demonstrate what employability their courses and modules bring with them, whether traditionally academic or more career-directed.
All degrees are taught and measured to degree level – there is no such thing as an 'easy' degree, whether it is in philosophy, maths, fine art, social work, civil engineering or hospitality and catering. Each is assessed to the same level of learning and aptitude. (Snobbery towards 'Mickey Mouse' degrees is rightly and rapidly dying out, particularly given the proliferation of different subjects students graduate in and how highly valued skills such as entrepreneurship are today.)
Many courses also offer an opportunity to study abroad for up to a year, which can provide invaluable life experience to a young adult. This is a good opportunity, therefore, to probe into what a university can offer your school-leaver, asking what skills can a student can expect to develop outside of their course and what, on average, are the kinds of starting salaries that graduates in their field are seeing.
Testing times... and par for the course(work)
Degree courses generally last for three years, often with only the second two years counting towards the eventual degree classification. The structure of the degree – what constitutes the final mark, whether it is exam-based or more practical, and whether a dissertation is necessary to achieve 'honours' – varies according to the institution and course.
Sitting examinations seems to be something that successive generations have become increasingly fearful of, preferring the bulk of their course to be weighted towards coursework. Consequently, many courses are almost, or entirely, exam-free. Some still require a certain amount of testing under exam conditions, as well as presenting in front of a group, and producing coursework. Naturally, the subject will determine the ratio of exams to practical work, with sciences being more exam focused and the humanities tending towards coursework.
Types of degree
Some subjects can take as long as six years to fully qualify as a practicing professional, for example architecture or law (so if your school-leaver wants to pursue one of these, be prepared!)
There are also some degrees that require or benefit from a work placement in industry or abroad (languages, for instance) – this may or may not be sourced with help from the university and placements can be competitive (which should be taken into consideration).
Most language courses last four years (including a year abroad) and some science and engineering courses automatically lead to a Master's after four or five years.
Degree apprenticeships are an increasingly popular option, whereby students can work for a reputable employer alongside their studies, gaining the same qualification as degree students without the debt of a student loan.
Research is key
Most universities offer a wide range of subjects and will have a school of humanities (English, history), life sciences (biology, medicine, environmental studies), social sciences (anthropology, psychology), and so on.
Some universities have a particular focus or area, or an outstanding reputation for a specific subject – depending on what your child wants to study, it's worth investigating which the specialist institutions are according to subject. On a related note, location can come into play if your school-leaver is interested in, for example, agriculture or marine biology – the latter courses with the best reputations are, unsurprisingly, widely offered at universities in coastal or port towns.
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