A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Why Go to University?

There are good, and not-so-good, reasons for spending time and money at college.

I have been in universities all my life. I started out in 1970 at a university that barely makes it into the top 500 in world rankings and have a doctorate from, and lectureship at, universities that are smugly in the top 10 of any of the league tables you can find. I have postgraduate degrees from four and have been a full Professor for 20 years. It’s been a good life: I would do it all again.

Because of my experience I am often asked by friends and parents for advice about which university to go to, if you can get in and afford the fees. And equally I ponder the question for my own son. Those universities in the top group are considered the best, but at what cost and for whom?

The increase in fees have led people to ask interesting and difficult questions. What do you learn from a degree in tourism? What skills do you acquire? Will you ever get pay back from all that investment. And what sort of pay-back?

A degree from top schools can now cost around $150,000. Is there any relationship between cost of course and the quality of education? Or is the money going to waste? I've outlined some of the common reasons for making the decision to go to university: some are traditional, some are cynical, and some rather good.

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Traditional Reasons:

1. To get a qualification that improves job prospects and the opportunity for a bigger salary. But I am not sure this applies to every degree. 

2. To acquire useful knowledge and transferable skills. However, essay writing skills may not be as important as the social skills and the emotional intelligence you can pick up (at half the price and time of attending university) running a market stall.

3. To understand how to be persuasive with words and numbers, give presentations, and speak in public. Learning to charm and neotiate is important, but where in the course exactly do you pick this up? It can be learned in other settings.

4. To understand how to gain access to, and more importantly critique, information. It is easy to use Wikipedia to find all you want to know, but it is the critical analysis of the data/literature that is most important. In the old days it was all about access to and storage of information. Now, it is much more about analysis. Universities do this well by teaching critical thinking.

5. To build self-confidence, independence and responsibility. Arguably an Oxbridge/Ivy League brand will get you some admiration. 

Skeptical/Cynical Reasons:

1. To postpone adulthood for as long as possible. To some it's a way to see the world, and enjoy idleness while parents pay. They are seeking the stereotypical university experience: self discovery on tropical beaches, nattering about existentialism while quaffing cheap wine.

2. Develop a taste for hedonism and idleness: sex in the afternoon, midweek matinees, picnics in the park. It is an age of experimentation and sloth. Morning television, uppers and downers just when you feel like it. Eradicate all that Puritanical nonsense they fed you at school. Life is short, so enjoy it to the full and universities teach you best hwo to do it.

3. Establish a useful, network of professional friends: doctors, dentists, lawyers. It is the ultimate ‘networking’ opportunity to find people on whom you can count on for the rest of your life. 

4. Make your parents happy and proud because they never went to university. They come from a generation where only the brightest and the best went to university. 

5. Avoid the ‘not-been-to-university’ monkey on the shoulder. For some, the doubt about their ability and taste never leave if they did not go in the first place and all their friends did. They forever have the feeling that they have missed something seriously important, and have to make up for it.

Good Reasons:

1. You find out what you are really good at. You can experiment, and find out where your talents lie. This can take ages. Good universities allow students to drop courses they are really not suited to and to join others that suddenly take they fancy. It is a time to discover your real passions and abilities.

2. To guide and foster an interest/ passion for its own sake. It's a time to develop a sense of the power of learning and thought, and respect what it can do.

3. To understand the idea of personal challenge. To know where your limits lie and the cost of success.

So where to get these experiences? The great universities have more and more famous staff, but they maybe full of geeky careerists not benevolent teachers. They offer better facilities, but at a steep price.

My advice is always twofold: aim high, as high as you can, and follow your passions. Find the course which best suits your interests, in an environment where you think you will thrive. 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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