MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 14-Aug-14 10:02:35

Guest post: A-level results - 'At 18, university isn't everything'

A-level results are in, and as university places are confirmed and lost, MN blogger Kerrie McGiveron - who dropped out of university at 18 and returned when she was 27 - argues that there is no 'right way' to do higher education.

Kerrie McGiveron

Wife, Mum, Student Bum

Posted on: Thu 14-Aug-14 10:02:35

(26 comments )

Lead photo

'Being a student is part of who I am now, but at 18, I couldn't handle it'

"Mum... how old are you meant to be when you go to university?"

Emily, aged eleven, is questioning me in the car. We're driving home from swimming lessons and rain is pelting the windscreen. I sigh, not really in the mood to discuss it. "The usual age is 18, but I was 27."

We know plenty of people who will have received their A-Level results today. Emily has not long had her own SATS score – she opened the crisp white envelope a few weeks ago, name printed on the front in capital letters, all official-looking. She was elated at her grade, thank God.

SATS were a massive deal for my daughter – but they were just the first in a long line of 'big deal' tests. When Emily opens her A-level results in a few years' time, I'm determined that she won't see them as the be all and end all.

It's a pretty hostile environment out there for young people. The pressure to 'do everything right' is huge, especially when you're constantly being told how competitive the job market is. You're supposed to do well in school, go straight to University (squeezing in work experience along the way), and then apply like mad for jobs and internships, often unpaid. Combined with the massive fees, it all feels very high stakes – and barely leaves room to think about what you really want to do with your life.

It can feel like your whole future is in that envelope – the right results, and you're on track to be 'a success'; the wrong results, and you're on the scrap heap already. But I am living proof that your life isn't decided by your A-levels.

I passed my exams and and enrolled at university, because that's what was expected of me. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but it seemed like the logical next step. I was directionless - and that, coupled with the stress of deadlines and exam pressure made it difficult. Nights out were spent drinking Blue Lagoon cocktails, and I was too busy - getting antlers tattooed on my back, dancing until the early hours, vomiting in my own hair - to care about my education. I had 'done the right thing', but I simply wasn't mature enough to handle higher education. And I'm sure lots of eighteen-year-olds are the same.

Pursuing an education at this time in my life has given me more confidence as an adult. I'm not just someone's mum; I am a student, a worker, and hopefully a role model for my children. I want my girls to know that nothing can hold you back if you are determined enough, whatever your age and whatever stage in your life you're at.


Fast-forward almost ten years, aged 27 and settled and happy, I started waking up in the dead of night, sweating and anxious. I was having a recurring dream in which I hand in an essay on time, and continue with my education. Tired of the broken sleep, I enrolled with the Open University to complete a BA (Hons) in History.

That was five years ago. I am married with three children, I work part-time, and hopefully I will graduate next year with a first class degree. And I want to continue with a post-graduate. Being a student is part of who I am now, and I love it. But at 18, I couldn't have been further away. I wasn't focussed, and I could never have given it the commitment that I do now.

Was it wrong to drop out, when I didn't have any responsibilities, and nobody relying on me? Should I have just bitten the bullet and succumbed to the pressure of education at the 'right' age? Should I now be focussed on my family now instead of my education? Am I selfish? Like most mothers, I doubt myself a lot. Balancing a degree, children, managing a household and working hasn't been easy.

But education is never easy. It's not meant to be. Education is an exciting challenge to embrace and enjoy. You're not supposed to be crippled with stress - and I believe that's what some 18-year-olds experience. I certainly feel a nervous energy with exams, essays and deadlines, but now I am much better equipped to cope with it.

Pursuing an education at this time in my life has given me more confidence as an adult. My role as a parent has changed, too - I'm not just someone's mum; I am a student, a worker, and hopefully a role model for my children. I want my girls to know that nothing can hold you back if you are determined enough, whatever your age and whatever stage in your life you're at.

So, I explain to Emily that she can go to university whenever she likes. There is no right way, and she shouldn't feel pressurised. We talk about her options, and I think about all the amazing opportunities out there for her to experience. We're a long way from her being five-years-old, telling me that when she grows up she "absolutely definitely wants to drive an ice-cream van."

Her final summing up of the conversation was: "I think I'll just have two gap years and then just do my degree later like you." I like the fact that she can think for herself. I was also secretly pleased that I must make it look easy, for her to want to do what I've done.

I will tell all my children that, finances considered, they can go their own way with education; it is all there waiting for them, and all they need to do is choose what is right for them, and when. The time for my education is now, and I am pleased with the path I have chosen. Plus, it's a lot easier doing it without vomit in my hair.

By Kerrie McGiveron

Twitter: @mardykerrie

mummyglitzer Thu 14-Aug-14 14:50:28

I am starting OU this year and I am 31. I definitely wasn't mature enough to do it at 18, even if I had got the grades required. Some people,like my sisters, are mature and organised enough to do University after school. I definitely have more ambition now I have a child and am more committed. Everyone just needs to do what is right for them.

Heels99 Thu 14-Aug-14 16:40:35

It's a shame that many employers are not impressed by OU degrees

mummyglitzer Thu 14-Aug-14 17:22:22

Really Heels99? I have never heard that. All of the OU degrees are worth just as much as the conventional study methods.

SirChenjin Thu 14-Aug-14 17:28:14

That's great an OU worked for you and your family. Personally, I'm very glad I did my degrees when I did and got them out of the way when I was 22 - I was young, I had no responsibilities, I had no family commitments to juggle around lectures, and I could focus on studying and partying (often in equal measures). I've continued studying for qualifications relevant to my career path, but I couldn't have got onto my career ladder without my degree as it's a pre-requisite for my job.

My DC1 is just going into 6th year, and we're encouraging him to go to university sooner rather than later. Further qualifications can be taken later, but again, in order to follow his chosen career, he'll need his degree - and I certainly don't want to be supporting him until he decides to study at some point in later adulthood.

melissa83 Thu 14-Aug-14 17:40:49

I did mine at 21. Great as they didnt count my parents income so got double the money. It also paid my mortgage for 3 years.

kerriemc Thu 14-Aug-14 18:05:55

Good luck to you, and enjoy. smile

kerriemc Thu 14-Aug-14 18:09:16

What I would say is that I work at a University, and there are plenty of people who work there who gained their academic qualifications with the Open University. In fact I have never heard of it being looked at in a negative light by employers - the other way in fact. My current employer's were impressed with the ability to self-motivate, etc.

FaFoutis Thu 14-Aug-14 21:03:56

Completely agree with you Kerrie. I will be telling my children the same thing.

I dropped out of university when I was 18, went back when I was 24 and got a first class degree and eventually a PhD. I'm an OU lecturer now (history) after working at a couple of brick universities. OU students are great.
Best of luck with your degree, hope you get your first.

Would like to add that I know plenty of academics who got their first degree with the OU too.

Kirstylilley Thu 14-Aug-14 21:09:37

100% agree. I waited a year and went to Uni at 19 and still dropped out. Going back in 12 months hopefully so exactly 1 year from today will be a big day and I will be 32 :-)

ImATotJeSuisUneTot Thu 14-Aug-14 21:34:43

I absolutely agree. Started my first degree at 28. On track for a first. Wouldnt have happened at 18, no chance.

gamescompendium Thu 14-Aug-14 21:42:59

It's a shame that many employers are not impressed by OU degrees

I don't know if I'd say many employers but there are certainly some employers that are able to pick and choose their graduates to such an extent that they will discard anyone who is not Oxbridge/Russell Group. In fact my brother was at a Russell Group Uni (this is 15 years ago so when the Russell Group was much smaller than it is now) and was told by one employer his PhD was from a 'second rate' University.

But TBH who wants to work for an employer with such a narrow viewpoint. I work for a multinational company, we wouldn't discriminate based on where someone did their degree, and we are richer for it. All you do when you select by University is select by class. OU is fantastic for giving capable people the opportunity to do degrees when they've missed the chance when they were younger. And people who have had to fight for their education tend to be pretty motivated individuals who are good employees.

Having said that, all things being equal I think University has the potential to be a fantastic maturing experience in a relatively safe environment when you are 18. So being a student when you are older is a different experience, probably more about the education and less about growing up.

KatyMac Thu 14-Aug-14 21:51:08

DD gets her GCSEs next week - she isn't doing A levels

For years I 'assumed' she would do A levels & then a degree then she dropped the bombshell that was 'vocational training'. I didn't know what had hit me, but as a family we adapted and she leaves home (at 16) in 4 weeks and I know we are doing the right thing for her 'right now'

I did A levels, redid Alevels & then dropped out of my degree after 2 years;20 years later I did my degree & then a post graduate qualification with OU then UEA

DD knows she can return to education at any time - to top up for her future career, to change track, to try something new - it's all good

KittiesInsane Fri 15-Aug-14 12:20:06

Games, some employers can be pretty blinkered. I was interviewing for my maternity cover (so not even a permanent post) and one of the older staff stopped by to say 'Basically we're looking for an Oxbridge first when you're sifting the CVs, then cut it down from there.'

Clearly he hadn't read my CV before I got the job, then?

mjmooseface Fri 15-Aug-14 15:26:23

I'm glad for this post! I'm still young at 22 and now my son is nearing 2 with the possibility of going into Nursery in January, I've been looking at doing some courses etc as, being a stay at home parent for now, want to continue learning to help me going back to work eventually! A part of me regrets not going to Uni at the time and I worry I may never be able to do anything like that again now that I'm married and have a child. But I've recently realised anything is do-able, finances owing! I'm still figuring out what to study, though! My problem is making up my mind! Once it's made, I will throw myself into it!

I have a question, though. If you apply for Uni - whether at an actual place or online with the OU - do they still look at your A level etc grades, even if you took them several years ago?

FaFoutis Fri 15-Aug-14 16:25:48

mjmoose, to go back to a brick university they will look at your grades. I did an extra A level at a local college to get my university place when I was 24.

For the OU you don't need any qualifications at all.

mjmooseface Fri 15-Aug-14 17:31:53

Thanks FaFoutis! How did you find doing the extra A level at a local college? Were you studying with people younger than you?

FaFoutis Fri 15-Aug-14 18:22:26

I did psychology A level, there were a range of ages in the group, 18 - 80, and it was a one year course. It was easy because I was only studying one subject and it was interesting.

EvansOvalPiesYumYum Fri 15-Aug-14 19:41:58

I'm not entirely convinced that a University degree is always the way to go for everyone! Neither I, nor my o/h went to Uni. We run our own business, very successfully.
I didn't force my children into it , they had the choice. A University Education is not the B-all and End-all of life. The job market is FLOODED with Uni-Grads, with no jobs for them. But when anyone wants a plumber, or a roofer, or a builder, or a carpenter, or a bricklayer (insert any type of tradesperson) - where are they? They are becoming few and far between, because everyone is hell-bent on sending their sprogs to Uni, graduating with enormous debt. Where is the sense in that?

Just a thought ....

EvansOvalPiesYumYum Fri 15-Aug-14 19:43:09

And they can go back to further education later in life, if that is what they choose.

ChocolateWombat Fri 15-Aug-14 20:38:10

A degree isn't for everyone, that is certainly true.
There are young people who are pushed into A Levels,malt bough their GCSEs mean they are unlikely to be very successful at A level. Then, with poor A Levels,mother are pushed onto poor degree courses at poor institutions, because the A Level and Uni route just seems the way to go.
Those poor A Levels and degrees might not really help much in today's job market. It isn't the right route for everyone. And for some of those people who lack a great academic record at 16, give them a few years and their maturity and ability and desire to learn as so much higher that they do fantastically when they access higher education through a different route.

I'm also a firm believer in young people learning resilience to the knocks of life. So, the A level grades were disappointing and they didn't meet their Uni offer......do they let it become a disaster and the defining moment of their life, or do they pick themselves up and look for the next thing for them and turn it into a positive. How we deal with set-backs is so important.

Having said all that, for those who can go to Uni at 18 and do a good course at a good Uni, the paths are then smoother for them and there are more options. I have seen friends in their late 30s who had no formal qualifications decide to get some. They were motivated and hard working, but with children, geographical restrictions and the lack of the standard GCSE/A levels behind them, it was a real slog, and they often had to do the less well regarded courses at the less well regarded universities, simply because of location..........probably fine for most jobs, but not for the highly competitive industries.

I went the traditional route and went to Uni at 18. I didn't give it much thought really. I didn't have to do lots of research to find a course that would fit around a family, or that would take me with an unusual academic background. I didn't have to plan childcare or work out how Inwould earn enough money to live whilst studying. I just naturally and easily moved onto the next stage. I easily went somewhere and studied and played hard and finished easily with a good degree at 21,p which Injust took for granted as the norm, because everyone around me did the same. and then I did postgraduate stuff straight after, before moving into a graduate job. For me, it was smooth and easy and I was lucky. Later in life, job opportunities have always been open to me because I have good paper qualifications and also experience in the workplace. This has not always been the case for my friends who followed different paths.

So Uni at 18 is not the be all and end all. There are other routes and education remains open to people well beyond this point now, for the determined. However, for those who can go at 18 and for whom it is workable and viable, given their qualifications and attitudes, I do think it smooths the path for later life, in a way that accessing education through other routes later in life does not.

Fairyliz Sat 16-Aug-14 22:30:00

Well great for the blogger whom presumably with three children has a partner who supports her and pays the bills. But if you don't go to uni what are the alternatives? a dead end job on minimum wage with no prospect? An apprenticeship paying £2.98 per hour where. they use you as cheap labour for two years then dont offer you a job? Countless unpaid internships where you pay for travel and accommodation and no job at the endof it?

All alternatively you could be like me; 54 with 36 years experience in my field and yet still the uni students are fast tracked over me ( once I ha e trained them up) beause I haven't got the right qualifications.

Can you guess what I will beencouraging my 17 year old to do?

jelliebelly Sun 17-Aug-14 17:24:54

I'd love to know what life was like for the op in those intervening 10 years though - what does a 19 year old university drop out do for money? Live off their parents? Get a job that tides them over till they meet a man with the means to fund a family and mortgage?

KookyGirlBlog Sun 17-Aug-14 21:14:17

I did go to university at 18 as I was totally ready for it, but I was in the minority. Many of the students were were in their twenties and,beyond.When I completed my MBA some years later again they were not recent graduates.
I'm hopeful that my daughter will attend uni, but in her own time. There's little point if you're not ready as you won't get the most out of it or enjoy it.
It's my firm belief that education is a lifelong process. I learn new things every day.

SirChenjin Sun 17-Aug-14 21:32:36

Jellie/Fairy - I wondered that too. My question about going to Uni later is what do you do in the interim? Presumably you're on a lower paid job/unskilled job - and then someone has to fund you while you do your degree? Or, if you're doing a distance learning degree, then you have to combine work/family/studying - which is incredibly difficult according to friends/colleagues who have done them.

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