Uni isn't for everyone and that's OK

Our Music Editor talks us through the highs and lows of University, dropping out and how you don't need to have a degree to achieve success

Feature by Tallah Brash | 26 Sep 2019
  • A Breath of Fresh Air

In early 2000, poised before the difficult decision of what course to study at University, I got myself in a pickle. Well and truly confused, I found myself applying for six completely different courses: Computer Arts at Dundee’s Abertay University (I never went to the interview), Interdisciplinary Design at Edinburgh Napier University, two different courses at the Edinburgh College of Art and two at the University of Edinburgh – Music (I didn't go to the audition) and Architecture (I accepted a place and quit less than two years into the course). What a total shitshow it all was. I was 17 years old – how the fuck was I suppose to know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life?

I have to admit up front, I didn’t have the most relatable of high school experiences. I was once a highly competitive archer, which found me travelling a lot in my teens with the Junior British Archery Team, and Scottish Junior and Senior teams. An abnormal amount of pressure had, therefore, already been placed on me from an early age – I sat two of my Standard Grade exams in a hotel room in Italy for fuck's sake – and then I had to figure out what to do after school. With archery, I was working towards hopefully one day competing in the Olympics, and The University of Edinburgh had the best Archery Club of everywhere I’d applied for so I guess that’s why I ended up there? Either that or I was just drawn to subjects beginning with the word 'arch'.

In an ideal world, I’d have taken a year out, but no one from my family had ever gone to uni before (hello extra pressure). I’d grown up in council housing with my parents constantly struggling to give me the best life and at the end of the day they just wanted what was best for me, which they thought was higher education, so convinced me otherwise. I’m now 37, I haven’t done archery for at least 16 years, I didn’t go to the Olympics and I don’t have a degree. But, and this is a big but, that doesn't make me a failure.

In 2002 I dropped out of uni. While I was managing to hold down a part-time job and doing reasonably well on the course, I was so deeply unhappy to a point where it was downright unhealthy. I was staying up late to finish coursework and then sleeping in and missing classes – it was a vicious cycle. Then, one night when I was drunk, on my way home from a club I went into the studio and coloured in all of my technical drawings (24 hour access was both a blessing and a curse) the night before I had to give a presentation! It was not a good look. I somehow got away with it, but immediately booked an appointment with my Director of Studies as I realised I’d gotten myself into a mess and didn’t particularly want to continue on the course. He immediately pointed out the glaringly obvious – I was depressed.

After trying to convince me to stay – “but you bring something different to the course” – he helped me try to transfer onto a different course (Primary School Teaching for some reason) which led to rejection. He did everything he could to help me and then I just stopped going into uni altogether, and I stopped archery. I was miserable. I felt like a failure, like I’d let everyone down, but my mum made everything seem okay. It turns out she just wanted me to be happy all along (of course she did) and the degree didn’t matter. I told my mum I’d taken on full-time hours in the cinema where I worked until I figured things out. Her response: “As long as you’re happy.”

As long as you’re happy. Five such simple words that have stuck with me since that day. I went from the Odeon to working in a bank (hated it), from the bank to Monsoon/Accessorize and from there to a whole big world of music. As a non-student I became a member of Fresh Air, Edinburgh Uni’s student radio station and that was my turning point. I started a show with my friend and found myself applying for a Creative Industries HND in Radio at Edinburgh’s Telford College, which I fucking well completed. Self high five! Fresh Air changed everything for me and it was like setting off an elaborate sequence of falling dominoes. Quitting uni was the best thing I ever did.

While it’s impossible to list everything here that I’ve done since I quit uni, I'm now the Music Editor for The Skinny and can without hesitation say I made the right call back in 2002; I have no regrets. I was employed at The Skinny based on my knowledge and experience, not on whether or not I had a degree. I’ve worked my way through various areas of the music industry over the years, offered my services for free, learning as much as I could along the way and fortunately it has led me here. It has been hard, but so is getting a degree. I'm now doing something I feel passionate about and I'm privileged to do what I do for a living.

So if you’ve just started uni, it is absolutely, unequivocally, more than OK if you’re not sure you’ve made the right decision yet. Seriously. Anything you’re doing is helping shape your future, and if you're anything like my boyfriend you might end up with a degree in Marine Biology but could become an award-winning baker. Stay true to you, and make sure what you’re doing feels right and if it doesn't, you feel stuck in a rut or not like yourself, talk to someone.

Words of Wisdom

"Please, please go with your gut. I left school three months before I was due to take my A Level exams with every odd stacked against me. My mental and physical health was a mess. I knew that I was at a crossroad with all signs pointing straight but my heart just wasn’t in it. There is no better time to be selfish [...] Don’t waste time pondering your future, go and start building it!" Daisy Maskell, Breakfast Presenter, Kiss FM

"I am in no way claiming to have ‘made it’ but I am super proud of what I've done. At school I was offered four unconditionals which I rejected to do a three-day-a-week HND at Edinburgh College. Studying Music Business I got the whole ‘where is that going to take you?’ chat or ‘so when do you go to uni?’ I’m 20 and I get hired on my experience and drive not a piece of paper I hold, or in this case lack of." Jo Dargie, Co-Manager/Director, Discovery Music Scotland

"Get a job, work hard. Four or five years of experience and ladder-climbing will serve you better than four or five years of study. Sure certain professions demand a university degree but I know that a degree would have done nothing to enhance my career. It sure as hell saved me several thousand pounds, it meant I could enjoy my early 20s and I learned an awful lot in those formative years in the industry." Ian Smith, Founder, Last Night from Glasgow

"I stumbled through school, crippled by what I now know is dyslexia. I started in the Civil Service straight from school but from my first glimpses of glam rock on Top of the Pops and seeing my first live band music was in my blood. After playing guitar badly for years, running community music groups and a festival on a voluntary basis, I now run Mac Arts and I still can't believe that this is called a job." Chris Wemyss, Venue Manager, Mac Arts, Galashiels

Don't Suffer in Silence

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, like you're struggling, or in desperate need of advice or help, talk to someone – that could be your Director of Studies, a tutor, your University's Student Council Service, your GP, a family member or a friend. Alternatively, here are some helpful websites to consider.

Nightline: nightline.ac.uk
National Union of Students: nus.org.uk
Student Minds: studentminds.org.uk
Scottish Association for Mental Health: samh.org.uk
Samaritans: samaritans.org
Tiny Changes: maketinychanges.co.uk
Mind: mind.org.uk