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Bursting the Bubble

Harriet Clifford talks through different experiences of dropping out of uni and explores what happens next

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Image: Harriet Cheshire

With UK university dropout rates continually on the rise, it comes as no surprise that most people know of someone who has dropped out of higher education. What is surprising, then, is how little this issue is discussed and how closely it veers into taboo-territory. If the person you know of is a friend, you are probably very supportive of their decision and are convinced that it was the right thing for them to do at the time. But when it comes to the fifth member of your presentation group, last seen in Week 2 and whose name may or may not have been James, the more common reaction might be annoyance, followed by a hint of contempt at the fact that you've managed to make it thus far with only two minor breakdowns and 11 bags of chilli-heatwave Doritos. While most of us are quick to make a fleeting judgement and brush poor James under the Dorito-stained carpet, we often don't think about the opportunities that lie ahead for someone who has left the university bubble without completing their degree.

During a conversation with an ex-York student, Hannah, who made the decision in 2015 to drop out of a Maths degree at the end of her second year, she speaks openly about her motives. "My main reason was how little I was enjoying my course, as well as the position I was going to be in if I completed my degree without a high enough classification to get into the kind of work I was interested in."

The pressure to pick the right course can be overwhelming during sixth form, particularly when coupled with the fact that there often doesn't seem to be many options available for those students deemed even vaguely 'academic' during school. For me anyway, university was posed as the inevitable destination, the be-all and end-all of A-Level results day. Feeling my only options to be either a no-expenses-spared gallivant across south-east Asia to 'find myself ' (who knows why I didn't choose this), or a reluctant shot at university, I went to Durham for five miserable weeks. As is also the case for a small proportion of other students who give up their studies, my reason was primarily mental illness, which was exacerbated (if not caused) by my not wanting to be at university in the first place.

I wonder whether Hannah enjoyed the rest of university life, and whether it was only the "learning for the sake of learning" that accompanied a degree for which she had no passion that made it impossible to stay. "As cheesy as it sounds, I really lived the dream, partly due to the fact that I spent more time than I should have doing the things that made me happy! York is still one of my favourite places in the world after providing such a wonderful bubble for my uni life to take place within."
I had never properly failed at anything before in my life and I realised that I had no idea how to cope with that

While Hannah definitely made the most of her social life here at York, most of us probably know something of the stress that comes with having to sit exams with very little motivation to revise and do well. "I found the whole exam period very emotional, largely due to not being sure that it was really what I wanted to be doing".

We then talk about what happened next. While Hannah tells me that the logistics of dropping out were very simple, she admits that "the mental side of it turned out to be the part that caused a lot more stress. I had never properly failed at anything before in my life and I realised that I had no idea how to cope with that. I was very worried that people would see me as a failure." Sadly, but inevitably, these are the natural feelings that most people experience when leaving university prematurely. Even the very phrase 'dropping out' implies a kind of shameful fall from grace, an embarrassed ducking out, a literal dropping off the face of the earth.

But when I ask Hannah what she's doing now, it becomes clear that she definitely hasn't fallen from grace: "I am now on a school-leaver program at KPMG, one of the Big Four financial services firms in the country, gaining a chartered level qualification and being paid a decent salary. I do the same work as the grads and will end up with exactly the same qualification as them, it will just take me a year or two longer."

After hearing how well Hannah is doing for herself, I want to know whether she has any regrets about leaving university. She gives me an honest answer, saying that "sometimes I wish I had made myself work harder so that I had finished my degree. However, I have come out of my university experience much more comfortable in who I am and what I want from my life, and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of that I'm doing it without a degree. Compared to some of my friends who have completed their courses, I'm actually in a better place!"

While today's competitive world of work is leading many young people to seriously consider whether they can achieve their goals without spending at least nine grand a year on tuition fees, it would be a shame if going to university were only about getting a degree. Hannah admits that she may not have got the work-life balance quite right, but leaves me with some thought-provoking advice: "Whether you finish your degree or drop out, I think it's always important to remember that the academic side of the experience is not necessarily the part that will have the most impact on your future."

Of course, the majority of students would never dream of leaving; your subject is interesting enough, you've made some friends who seem alright, maybe you play a sport, maybe you're a keen member of the Louis Theroux Society - you've got something generally resembling a work-life balance. But what is clear is that it's very difficult to thrive, or even survive, at university without this balance, particularly when moving beyond first year.
University isn't the be-all and end-all - you can still do great things without a degree, you just have to work hard for it!

Oddly enough, I found another Hannah who also decided to leave her Maths course at York in 2015 (seriously, someone should do some research into this), who is also now doing very well for herself. Working at PwC, she is in the same position as many degree holders, something that wouldn't have been possible had she finished university with a classification lower than a 2:1. Being very honest, she tells me that she blames her lack of self-discipline at university for her inability to complete her course, but also the fact that she had a full-time job while here, which ultimately "took priority". Despite this, Hannah says, "university changed my outlook and approach to a lot of things in life, and on the whole, made me more of a well-rounded person."

Again, I am intrigued as to whether she has any regrets: "I would love to say that I don't, but this isn't entirely true. Getting into university to study Maths was one of my greatest achievements to date and I will always regret not working harder. But I do not regret my decision to drop out as I put myself in a better position. What I have taken away from it is that university isn't the be-all and end-all - you can still do great things without a degree, you just have to work hard for it!"

The two Hannahs seem to have had fairly similar experiences of dropping out and have ended up leaving university behind them with a better understanding of who they are and what they want to do with their lives. However, just as people have different reasons for leaving, people also go about picking themselves up in different ways. Fast-forward three years and I'm back in the bubble, having made it to just beyond the half-way point of another degree and having a great time doing it. By rather spectacularly throwing myself off the conveyor-belt that was rapidly propelling my reluctant 18-year-old self towards a life I didn't want, I was able to take a break and work out exactly who I am as a person. Turns out you don't need to go to Thailand for that after all. M

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2 Comment

Anonymous Posted on Thursday 13 Aug 2020

Excellent Harriet I'm very proud of you. Keep writing. Love you Nana xx


Kate Palmer Posted on Thursday 13 Aug 2020

Very thought provoking and interesting and well written article. I have a daughter in her final year at Uni and it hasn't always been easy and is a gamble. Thank you


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