What did you get out of university? For me, it was an expanded waistline, almost £30,000 of tuition fees frittered away, and three years of my life wasted. Oh, and a framed certificate in my parents’ hall.
My ideas about what student life would be like were all wrong. I’m a big fan of the E4 show Fresh Meat, which shows a group of friends at university having a wild time. My experience was nothing like that! It was just me alone in my room the whole time.
Part of the problem was that my halls of residence were filled with lots of mature students who didn’t go out much. They were just there to get their degree and leave.
At school, I had a big group of friends. We all lived close to each other and went out all the time. The worst part was that I lost them as friends too. They seemed to love their universities and stayed there during the holidays, so we grew apart.
When I actually got to university, and found myself hating it, I thought I was the only person who wasn’t having fun. My school friends’ Instagram snaps seemed to show the perfect uni life: endless nights out, stimulating lectures and in-jokes with all their new mates.
It wasn’t until the end of my third year that I finally admitted to a few friends there how I really felt. I couldn’t face the thought of going to the summer ball. It was meant to be the final celebration of our student days but I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. When I told them, lots of people on my course admitted they hadn’t bought tickets either. They felt the same disappointment with their university experience.
According to a 2017 survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to higher education research, student dissatisfaction is rising. The percentage of students who feel they are not getting value for money at university now stands at 34% - the highest it’s ever been. Far from living in a responsibility-free bubble, the report suggests that students are more anxious than the rest of the population.
According to the 2017 Student Experience survey almost nine in 10 (87%) of first-year students find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life. Their biggest worries include how to manage their workload, financial difficulties, and feeling isolated from family and friends.
At first, I thought it was my fault that I was miserable. I worried that I’d chosen the wrong university. It has a good reputation, but the campus is isolated. The nearest town is a half-hour drive away and there wasn’t even a fast food place nearby. Student nightlife consisted of a single grotty pub and the student union.
Even if I had picked a university offering higher quality club nights, though, it’s unlikely I’d have had a much better time.
It wasn’t just the lacklustre lecturers, the hellish housemates and the non-existent nightlife – above all, I hated that I wasn’t meeting my own expectations of what this experience should be like.
Everyone told me how much I’d love university, how I’d make lifelong friendships and be all set up for getting a great job afterwards.
Instead, I avoided the Fresher’s socials. I don’t really drink, and being sober when everyone else is drunk isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.
When I was at school, I did drink a bit on nights out as I didn’t want to feel left out. But I quickly realised that I didn’t respect my friends when they were drunk. So, at university, I just stopped. To be honest, I now wish I had drunk a bit of alcohol. It might have made it more bearable.
Making friends was tough. Everyone wanted to be best friends straight away and I found it all a bit fake. I missed the comfort of my close-knit group of school friends and was painfully aware that I had nobody to go for a coffee or to lectures with. I felt desperately lonely.
I couldn’t seem to find a 'tribe' to fit in with. When it came to choosing housemates for the second year (when we had to find accommodation off campus), I panicked and ended up living with two people I barely knew.
One housemate unexpectedly moved his girlfriend in and they basically took over the house. They spent hours making cosy dinners and watching TV cuddled up. They left their underwear on the bathroom floor and their dirty dishes hung around until there was mould growing on all the plates.
When we asked if his girlfriend would be paying any rent or bills, it just caused arguments. I know that this is part of the university experience – that learning to negotiate difficult situations and navigate tricky relationships is part of growing up for everyone. But it was awful. I developed insomnia and felt anxious in the house.
I didn’t go to university looking for a boyfriend. I met two people over the three years I was there, neither of whom were students. They both had jobs and their own flats in a nearby city, so I would always stay with them. They kept asking to come and see me but I refused. I was desperate to get away.
I was single for six months in between and spent most of it alone in my room. I met my second boyfriend through Twitter. He’s an illustrator who I followed because I liked his work. I was incredibly bored in a lecture once so I messaged him and it went from there.
Sometimes I wish I had been single for longer - it might have made me go out and meet more people. But not having a boyfriend to look forward to seeing at weekends would have made a bad situation even worse.
Things weren’t much better when it came to my education. At school, I had been a star pupil, but here I found myself struggling to get good marks. My tutorials were either confusing or tedious, and some of the tutors were unhelpful and abrupt when I asked for advice. One even suggested that I shouldn’t be there if I couldn’t keep up. I was devastated.
I also found the pace unbearably slow. After the constant homework deadlines and daily classes of high school, I only had two seminars a week and spent most of my time procrastinating because none of the work I had to do was urgent. It was a shock to go from the rigid structure of school to almost total freedom overnight with (in my case) zero advice on how to manage my time and workload.
I wish I had considered alternatives, like doing an apprenticeship, or even just spending some time travelling and seeing the world.
Far from finding all this independence thrilling, I just felt guilty that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was so lucky to be there. These were meant to be the best years of my life. Why couldn’t I make it work? The thought of all the money I was wasting on this horrible experience heightened my frustration and feelings of failure.
It didn’t cross my mind that university isn’t for everyone - that some people build perfectly successful careers, and lives, without getting a degree.
Looking back, I’m still glad I went – I’m glad I won’t have those ‘what if?’ moments wondering what student life might have been like for me. And I did meet two best friends, who were on my course and were just as disillusioned as me. The fact that we were all having such a bad time is what bonded us together.
But I wish I had considered alternatives, like doing an apprenticeship, or even just spending some time travelling and seeing the world.
Now, I have an exciting new job working in media and I love it. The 9-5 routine really suits me. I’ve worked on some exciting projects, and seeing something tangible come to fruition is so much more rewarding than slaving away on an essay in return for a mediocre grade and no feedback.
I’ve also learned not to be fooled by the university highlights reels – or any highlights reels, actually - that my friends keep uploading to social media. I know all too well, the unfiltered reality is sometimes very different.
This article was originally published on 29 March 2018