University sacrifices: choosing between the first or the fun

Charlotte Fairclough

The initial realisation that it was unlikely that I would be getting a first class degree was one of despair. How would I get a job? How would I explain what appears to be an absolute failure to my expectant family? How could I possibly have not spent every spare moment in the library or doing secondary reading? Or the primary reading, even?

Academia. It’s what we all come to university for in the first place. Yet soon enough, the allure of various activities, nights out, and the simple fact that there are over 13,000 other students to befriend and party with takes over. First year: it doesn’t count, everyone reassures one another. Second year: it counts a bit more, so work to meet the deadlines and turn up to the exams. Third year: the apocalypse dawns. It’s a natural cycle of desolate panic, yet academia is not the only thing that ‘counts’. Some people like to reassure themselves with this fact, without carrying much conviction. But it’s true: university is not just about obtaining that coveted first. There is almost a sickening number of opportunities available to students – and they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t intended as beneficial additions to academic study.

Whether it’s taking part in something that relates to what you want to do when you graduate, or volunteering to plant trees in local parks, everything is a ‘useful’ experience. If not at university, when else? It’s hard to envisage many people in the working world who have the time, inclination, or funds to go on a night out, direct a play, and partake in competitive squash matches all in one week.

The figures from the NSS showing that more Electronics students at York get a first class degree than those studying Archaeology are admittedly puzzling. Unlike popular and biased stereotypes, this doesn’t mean that Electronics students are more focused on their studies, go out less, have less of a ‘life’ than Archaeology students.

Perhaps the reason for the disparity is that Electronics students have more contact hours than Archaeology students, and different methods of examination. What worries me isn’t the difference between the numbers of firsts from students doing different subjects at my own university – it’s whether students from different universities doing similar subjects, who I will be competing against in the big bad world of employment, are having an easier time getting a first. This, sadly, isn’t something we can do much about, other than making the Harry Fairhurst building your second home.
This leads to the next worry about whether employers recognise that York is a good university. It fluctuates up and down the league tables on a yearly basis, it’s not part of the Russell group, and it doesn’t have a reputation for being ‘the’ university for any particular subject. On paper, being a York graduate might say absolutely nothing, so using individual experiences as evidence that you’ve made the most of being at university (regardless of the institution) become necessary to set students apart from the job-hunting rabble. Maybe this is where York is a winner: there’s college sport and BUCS sport; there’s some extremely niche societies; there’s even academic societies for those with scholarly inclinations.
Employers know these opportunities exist, they’ve heard the plugs from universities and unions about the glorious ‘student experience’ as many times as we have. They know ‘how it is’ for students, so in some senses, turning up to an interview proudly waving your first but having nothing else to say about your time at university is a bit of a death trap.

There’s a healthy balance to be found, and it’s a juggling act. It’s hard to work out which to sacrifice, the fun or the first? I’m personally happy to settle for a 2:1, and I’d like to think it’s not entirely because I’ve been happily duped into believing all of this ‘well-rounded person’ business.