Beyond A levels

Which Uni?

Job-specific skills are not everything; varsity is ultimately about an education for life

How do you choose the right university or the right degree course?

The whole process can seem daunting. What should you focus on? How do you weigh up the different elements involved? So much seems to be at stake.

Students and their families often focus overwhelmingly on only some of the crucial aspects of choosing the right university, often missing other equally important, but less obvious, issues.

So here are some suggestions and tips about how best to think about choosing a university and a degree course. Of course, each person's situation is unique, but I hope I can provide some general guidance.

1.Keep things in perspective

Your life won't be ruined if you don't get into the university or course of your absolute first choice. In fact, I think sometimes it's positively healthy that you don't. It forces you to think about what is really important to you, at least in terms of your education.

Young people today are likely to go through five to seven major career changes over their lifetimes. And this means a narrow, vocationally focused degree will not necessarily set you up best for the future.

Each university or degree will have strengths and weaknesses and distinctive things on offer.

So dream big. Explore different options. Don't limit yourself to what your mates are talking about, or your uncle's views about arts degrees.

Get out to as many open days and visit as many university websites as you can. Give yourself a real sense of the degree or course you are interested in, as well as the general vibe of the campus.

2. Treat entry scores with extreme caution

Entry scores are a signal about the demand for a course, and not its inherent quality. The entry requirement is a function of the number of places available and the number of students who want (or we expect to want) to do the degree.

That doesn't mean courses with lower entry scores are, therefore, necessarily less prestigious, or somehow less rigorous. For example, although arts and science degrees often have lower entry scores than professional degrees, in many cases, arts and science faculties are ranked just as highly in the various global university league tables, and sometimes even higher (although league tables are another thing to treat with caution).

If you have your heart set on a double degree, for example, with a very high entry score you didn't (or won't) achieve, think about enrolling in a more generalist degree and then see if you can transfer in (especially if you were really close to the cut-off).

Even better, sometimes enrolling in a generalist degree course gives you more options than a double degree offers. You can then top off your undergraduate degree with a master's in the professional area of your choice. In fact, that is an increasing global trend: go broad at undergraduate, and then specialise at master's.

3. Focus on the big picture

Focus on the overall university reputation and not just the particular faculty or school. So much of your university experience will take place outside your particular faculty, as much as within it.

So find out what the overall student experience is like. Are there active student clubs and societies? Are there opportunities for international exchange, internships and work placements?

4. Remember job-specific skills aren't everything

Try to remember that a university is not a job training centre. Despite the overwhelming pressure today to think about your degree in terms of future employment, don't let that overwhelm your decision-making (or that of your parents!). It is perfectly understandable that you will want to draw a tight connection between your degree and future employment. But there are two reasons why you should keep an open mind.

First, the world of work is changing rapidly. Many of the jobs that will be available when you graduate haven't even been invented yet. Young people today are likely to go through five to seven major career changes over their lifetimes. And this means a narrow, vocationally focused degree will not necessarily set you up best for the future.

Of course, if you have your heart set on accountancy or chemical engineering and have the marks to do it - then go for it. But even engineering and business schools now realise how important it is for their students to learn a broad range of skills and to have their intellectual horizons expanded.

Even more importantly, the business leaders we work with at the University of Sydney have made clear that they are looking for well-rounded graduates - the kind of people who can keep learning, deal with change and contingency, understand context and communicate effectively.

So despite the ribbing at family barbecues about studying art history or quantum physics, you might just be doing the most practical thing you can to help set up your future career.

5. Think about the value beyond dollars

Finally, and probably most importantly, university is ultimately about an education for life, not just the next few years. So take the opportunity to push yourself - intellectually and socially.

Whether you are entering university straight out of high school, or after working or raising a family, it's best conceived as an exciting period for personal growth and intellectual expansion. It will help your career, I am sure - all the statistics make that clear - but the value is ultimately not something best captured in economic terms.

  • Duncan Ivison is professor of political philosophy and deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney. •This article first appeared in The Conversation , a website that carries analyses by academics and researchers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Which Uni?'. Print Edition | Subscribe