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‘What do you know about university?’

I probably ask this question 80 or 90 times a year. I ask enthusiastic primary school children, sleepy teenagers and interested, but often cautious adults. I ask audiences of five people, I ask audiences of a hundred.

When I ask the question, I have conflicted hopes about the answer – as a Widening Participation Officer, someone whose job revolves around supporting people in making empowered decisions about whether to attend university, I hope that everyone knows everything. As someone who also has to keep young people engaged all day,  I half-hope that they only know a little, as there’s no ‘ta-da’ moment, if everyone already knows the answer.

The answers I receive to the question vary wildly, but one theme remains the same. ‘College movies’. There is the occasional person who has seen Educating Rita or Starter for 10, both interesting introductions to the world of British higher education, but the average teenager’s reference points tend to be Hollywood productions such as Pitch Perfect, Legally Blonde and other films and TV programmes that I am often too old to have heard of.

Almost without exception though, the references are American – sororities, fraternities, quarterbacks, ‘keggers’ and the ever mysterious ‘quad’. The American hold on the British imagination is as strong as ever.

Some of the details are comparable to life at a British university – big lecture theatres with individual lap-desks? We have those – and believe me, you haven’t lived till you’ve heard seventy Year 9s vigorously and repeatedly try them out at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning.

Many of the references however, don’t translate. The term ‘college’ itself gets blurred with our sixth form and further education experiences, the emphasis on ‘dorm’ rooms and the sorority/fraternity system causes a great deal of confusion – try telling a 12 year old from Ellesmere Port that they can’t become a member of Sigma Delta Phi without leaving the country, it’s heart-breaking. It makes sense that teenage films focus on social side of things, rather than lecture notes and essay formats, but as a result, they provide precious little insight into what university is actually like.

The lure of being away from home and the chance to reinvent yourself is certainly a powerful one, and not inherently bad, however it does raise two important points. Firstly, that attending university simply for the social experience is an expensive and ultimately doomed enterprise. Some of the young people I meet are mildly shocked to find that you can fail a university course ‘even though you’re paying for it’, which provides a good opportunity to explain where their fees go, but is also in stark contrast with the ‘come to university and have a good time without any real mention of the work’ messaging of the classic college movie.

A more useful, but still engaging contemporary reference for young British people was broadcast on the BBC in Spring 2020, and based on the current viewing figures,  is proving to be the most popular drama focusing on higher education for at least a decade. For those of you that haven’t seen it, Normal People is a drama series that documents a love story between two Irish teenagers as they move from school to university. In contrast to most screen representations of university, it’s subtle and sensitive.

As someone who supports this transition for a living, I was struck by how well it handled the potential impact of the move to university on two students from very different backgrounds. Like its American counterparts, the glamorous social life and chance for reinvention is still there, but it’s balanced by the possibility that you might get to university and find that the social life is difficult to navigate, or in fact, just not for you.

Unlike the classic college movie, rather than focusing on a student who is at risk of failing, both the male and female leads work hard, and are at university for the reasons we recommend – to further their career, and because they love their chosen subject. Although it isn’t suitable for younger viewers, if you’re looking for a realistic representation of some aspects of the university experience, I can’t recommend it enough –, it’s one slight flaw for the British audience, is that due to the structure of the Irish education system,  university is still referred to as ‘college’, but then, you can’t win them all.

To return to my original question, does watching TV and films about university help with the decision making process?

I think so.

In the same way that someone who has watched all of Grey’s Anatomy shouldn’t assume that they know exactly what it’s like to be doctor, someone who has seen a film about university shouldn’t assume they know all there is to know. Every student is different and so is every university.   

That said, I’m eternally grateful to the classic American college film, for making young British people aware of some of the differences between school and university, and in some cases, for making them aware of university at all.

Kappa-Delta-disappointment aside, I think that there are some valid and often wonderful things to be learnt from these films; that university can be an exciting and social time, you’ll meet new people and study in new ways, the workload is significant but worthwhile – the new experiences available at university are potentially endless, and if young people see that on the screen and it makes them consider university, I’m certainly not complaining.

The only issue, is that these films and TV shows are designed for entertainment and provide inspiration, rather than information - and the thing a young person needs most in this situation, are the facts.

For every time I start a workshop with the question ‘what do you know about university?’, I finish it by suggesting that you can’t make decisions about your future if you don’t have all the information.

Regarding the role of fictional films and TV in this process – I recommend that students do their research, talk to their teachers and careers staff, learn as much as they can about the career options out there, and whether university is right for them, then grab a bowl of popcorn, make themselves comfortable,  and press play.

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