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October 12, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Anthem for the Disillusioned Undergrad

If this was the summer of ‘06, I’d take first-year Weir House resident Nina Fowler out for a drink and shake up her ideas about university education.

I’m not talking about the quality of tertiary education in New Zealand or the national skilled trades shortage. Both issues are important but neither will help you, the current or returning student, get the most out of your education at Victoria. Right here, right now, the single most important thing you need to think about is how you’re using university to get where you want to go.

Take me por ejemplo. I was sweet 18, peachy-keen, and I had some real strong ideas about university. I thought university should follow on straight after high school with a gap year option for the particularly daring, and be completed in the recommended three years. After graduation, my options would include a) pursue further study or b) get a real job and pursue a career.

There is nothing wrong with this model, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Common problems include burn-out, drop-out and low grades due to general fatigue and academic disillusionment. Graduates may feel confused, listless and frustrated with an apparent complete lack of ‘real job’ options. Solutions include taking some time off to travel or doggedly trying to penetrate your industry of choice while working whatever doggone job you can find. The best solution is, of course, prevention, and prevention means we need to dump the ridiculous ‘get your undergrad quick’ model pushed onto students by well-meaning peers and parents.

Without further ado, here are a few home truths about university education:

Lesson #1: If you’re creative and motivated, then you may be better off outside the university system.


Find your enemy. When you know what you’re against, you have taken the first step towards discovering what you’re for.
—Salman Rushdie

Milo Haigh, 23, started her undergraduate degree straight out of high school after winning a partial scholarship to fund her studies. Her decision was perfectly logical. “It didn’t make sense to waste all that money, I’d already proven myself at an academic level, and it was also about my school and parents and trying to move away. I just felt like I had to.”

After a fruitful first year and less enjoyable second year, Haigh dropped out of her third year to broaden her experience working in theatre.

“I learned a lot at school but not necessarily what I thought I was going to or what I wanted to,” she says. “My courses were really good and put a holistic perspective on what I was interested in, which was great, but at the same time, one of my frustrations was that I couldn’t apply it in the way I wanted. It wouldn’t have worked with the course and it wouldn’t have worked with the lecturers.

“I started working in theatre, which wasn’t encouraged but was a natural sort of free fall from working on university productions. Eventually, my performance work started to take over because I was learning more from people in the industry than I was from school.”

For Haigh, two years of university gave her just enough knowledge, experience, self-awareness and contacts to start doing what she wanted to do.

“University gave me a direction. It made me rebellious, made me a bit kind of self-righteous about my own education. I thought, I can do this myself in a way that’s more tailored to me and my needs, with the knowledge that I had from school and from knowing that school wasn’t the right thing for me. I had to go to know that it wasn’t right.”

She doesn’t believe her uncompleted degree poses a barrier for further education, possibly at art school, or employment in the theatre industry. On the contrary, after two years of industry experience, Haigh knows exactly what she needs to do and has a good idea of how to get there.

Lesson #2: The real value of your degree may be as a back-up plan.

Rodger Fox is New Zealand’s foremost jazz trombonist, big band leader, jazz educator, arranger and producer, and a teacher at the New Zealand School of Music. He gained his musical knowledge and experience “on the road”, in large part because no tertiary options for jazz were available in 1970s New Zealand.

Fox appreciates that the modern music business is a different beast. “When I was the age of the kids coming to the school, there was a lot of work for touring bands. There’s less work now. Musicians need to be a bit more skilled, with a wide base of experience, and coming to university makes that process a bit quicker.”

Fox remains an advocate of “life experience and being on the road,” but points out that a degree can come in handy if full-time performance work doesn’t work out.

“What I try to encourage is for young students to get their BMus, their honours, maybe look at also doing the teaching degree qualification and then they’ve got everything covered. It means they can walk into any high school and get a job, then be free to go on the road thinking ‘I’ve got this in the bank, when I don’t want to do this anymore I can come back and actually get a job’.

“A qualification doesn’t mean anything when it comes to performing. You don’t need a qualification to play well but you do need a qualification if you want to be in the business of music, and that means if you want to write, arrange, compose or teach. You need all of those skills if you want to get work in a teaching role.”

Lesson #3: Fucking with the traditional full-time, two-major, three-year degree model leads to interesting things.

Kristen Paterson, 28, and Matthew Davis, 23, are two of the core founders of Victoria student radio station VBC 88.3. Both took an alternative approach to university study and believe their decisions have set them up well for the future.

Davis began studying in 2006 by “picking up various bits and pieces that interested me”. He completed his degree in English literature over four-and-a-half years rather than the recommended three. “A lot of people cram in as many papers as they can into one trimester, to get in and out of there quickly, whereas I was doing the minimum needed to qualify for full-time study, basically to get living costs because we weren’t earning while running the station.”

He wishes that more university students would act on their creative and entrepreneurial dreams while still at uni. “People have great ideas but then when you go ‘sweet, go ahead and do that’, they’re like ‘oh, nah, I’ve got to finish off my degree and then I want to basically get a job’. What’s the rush? University isn’t going anywhere.”

Paterson studied English and Media Studies part-time for two years, then dropped out in 2006 to start work on the station, which launched at the start of 2007.

“There were all these papers I had to do that bored the hell out of me and they conflicted with papers that I was really interested in doing. I became very disillusioned with the whole thing. I wanted to just go straight into actually doing something, not just writing and theorising about it.”

She argues that her work with the VBC is worth far more than a completed degree.

“The reason you graduate and feel like you’ve got nothing, is that universities have this weird attitude of ‘let’s get rid of the practical stuff because we want to be high-brow,’ yet most jobs aren’t high-brow things.

“If you want to be a journalist, then you need to know how to write a bloody article. If you want to work in radio, you need to know how to work all the bells and whistles down at the station. Why do you actually need the three years of theory? If it’s just critical thinking that employers are looking for, you can get that out of first and second year and not need to go straight to third year.”

While Paterson respects the value of a university education, she points out that extra-curricular activities like internships, apprenticeships and self-starter initiatives like the VBC are much more impressive to prospective employers.

Lesson #4: University is not for everyone.

Education is not going to get in the way of my career. —G. K. Chesterton

David Cohen, veteran New Zealand author and journalist, is an expert on higher education and academic affairs. Over the course of his career, he has visited an estimated 60 or 70 universities around the world. Cohen’s decision not to enter into tertiary study may seem somewhat ironic, given his area of specialty interest, but is a simple sign of the times.

“The massification of higher education is something that’s really only occurred over the last 15 or so years in New Zealand. It’s now pretty normal for almost any young person to contemplate and pursue an undergraduate degree at the very least, but when I came of age, completing an undergraduate degree was like maybe doing a master’s degree today. We had far less of an academic culture, which I happen to think is a good thing.”

His conscious decision not to enrol at university was driven by three factors. First, “university wasn’t the big enchilada it is now”. Second, Cohen’s background was “fairly rough and tumble, so academic concerns figured even less.” Third, and most important, a career in journalism didn’t require a large academic component. “It was considered, correctly, a craft which largely consisted of knowing how to write, establish rapport with people, body language and so forth, and how to hold your alcohol.

“That’s the way journalism was. Sometime in the ‘90s, everyone without a degree got shunted out of the entry-level positions, which were then all filled with middle-class kids, often with theoretical degrees and little else in the way of varied life experiences. Look, theoretical and media studies are great if you want to pursue that as an academic discipline—but they’re completely irrelevant to reporting.”

Cohen holds a rather monkish stance on university education. “My view of university is simply: I’m an elitist. Most jurisdictions should have as few a number of universities as possible. They should be charged with inspiring the minds of the elite for the sake of pure knowledge.”

“Why does every young person fit the university life supposedly like hamburger on bun? It doesn’t follow. Some young people make excellent chefs or retailers or journalists. You don’t need four or five years of college to work that out.”

The advice and anecdotes in this article are not intended for everyone. For many students, completing their degree may be a primary goal, in and of itself, just to prove they can. This is a satisfying and worthy pursuit and I wish you all the best.

For others, for students who are frustrated with their studies, for self-motivated students who have no idea why they’re at Victoria, here are the assorted words of wisdom that I wish I’d known earlier.

Take the time to work out where you want to go and what you need to get there. Have fun and test your abilities in the ‘real world’ before you leave uni. Chop up your degree. Take a year or a trimester off, study part-time. If you’re an arts student, take a few design, architecture, science or music papers, and vice versa. Yes, you can do that if you want. If you ask lecturers nicely, they will let you sit in on courses at honours and even masters level. Yes, you can do that too. Meet people and chase opportunities. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of not finishing your degree if you find something better.

Basically, fuck with your university education as much as you want. Make it your own. After all, you’re the one paying.

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About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (7)

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  1. I think uni’s do need to move with the times. But…they are not school, they are not training and yes I agree they are not for everyone.

    The high brow stuff IS necessary because ‘ideas inform actions’. If you don’t have an idea about how ideas are formed then you can’t out think problems and have a critical understanding of the underlying assumptions that people often take for granted.

    If you go to uni’ and hope it isn’t an intellectual endevour that’s like going to MacDonalds and hoping you won’t get burgers.

  2. Alpha says:

    You can get French fries from McDonald’s too.

  3. Isaac Stead says:

    Nina Fowler I implore you to pray and read your Bible. From what I have read you are a troubled young woman sunk deep in sin. It is of no use for you to try to save the world with your meaningless scribblings; for “Satan is the ruler of this world” John 12:31.

  4. Jacob Instead says:

    Nina, I too hope you can find solace for your prostitutional ways in the wise words of Exodus:

    “But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched [Moses’] feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said.” Exodus 4:25.

    There’s more where that came from.

  5. Jemima says:

    What Nina is currently thinking:

    “There’s this passage I got memorized.

    Ezekiel 23:19

    “Yet she multiplied her harlotries, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the harlot in the land of Egypt. She lusted after their paramours, whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys and whose issue is like the issue of horses.

    I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass (get it? An ass is like a donkey). I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker ‘fore I popped a cap in his ass (hiyoooo! The double entendres keep flowing). But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think different.

    See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the harlot in the land of Egypt, and I’m the Donkey, and Mr. 9mm here, he’s the ‘issues’ covering my donkey ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean you’re the donkey and I’m the paramours and it’s the world that’s the flesh of a donkey who issues like a horse. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the paramours, and I’m the harlot. But I’m tryin’, Jacob and Issac. I’m trying real hard to be the harlot.”

    Stage Direction: Nina gets up from the Diner table and with Mr. 9mm’s help “issues” into and all over Jacob and Issac. Turns to Sarah…

    Nina: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa… stop right there. Eatin’ a bitch out, and givin’ a bitch a foot massage ain’t even the same fuckin’ thing.”

  6. Holly says:

    Thanking you muchly, this is helpful to a prospective student like me.
    On a different note:
    Aaaah G.K Chesterton. Good man, excellent man.

  7. John says:

    I say if you have the money and time to do undergrad studies right after high school, by all means as not every one will have that opportunity. something always happens ti make you forego. This is also so you can start your carreer as early as possible.

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