THE value of university education was back in the news earlier this week after a group of young Shetlanders told the Education and Skills Committee that they wanted a broader range of options other than continuing in academia available to them when leaving school.

SNP MSP James Dornan, who is on the committee, told local newspaper the Shetland Times that there was a need to recognise the value in apprenticeships rather than viewing university as “the be-all and end-all”.

Earlier this month, a poll of 900 young people found that two thirds felt they were given far more information about going to university than any other opportunities when discussing their futures, and some pupils raised concerns that their schools were more minded to boost their institutional reputations rather than taking a more sincere look at the most suitable career path for individuals.

As someone who didn’t go to university, I couldn’t agree more with today’s youngsters. While trying not to sound too much like a dinosaur, it resonates with my experiences of secondary school. I still remember the overall tone of discussion as my classmates and I approached the end of our time at school.

Many of my fellow pupils dropped out of school after sitting their standard grade exams, and it was always met with a sense of disdain, or failure. At a barely conscious level, us kids knew that leaving at that point was seen as a sign of lower intellect, of less ability. The real success was in going to university, and that was a marker of the kids who would inevitably go on to greater things in life.

Kids pick up on these signals and have no frame of reference for them. It’s only in adulthood that any of us would have stopped to reassess those ideas. But as kids, it was accepted, barely even consciously, that there was a dividing line between those who would go on to university and those who wouldn’t.

It’s only now that I wonder about the full psychological impact that had. I didn’t leave after my standard grades, I left the year after, following a dismal performance in my Higher exams. I am now the news editor of a national newspaper, and yet I only scraped a C in Higher English. And that was the only Higher I got.

The reason is that I was going through quite a tough time. I didn’t come from riches or financial comfort. Life where I came from was hard, and the pressures I was facing as a teenager made it impossible to thrive in education.

I took it all very personally. With little real understanding of the magnitude of the challenges I was facing as a teenager, I leapt to the conclusion that perhaps I was just stupid. University and education just wasn’t for the likes of me. I had no concept of the fact that my academic performance as a struggling teenager was not an indicator of my ability or my intelligence.

As far as I understood it, the smart kids went to university, and if I wasn’t going there then I probably had a bleak future ahead.

It took me until my mid-20s to realise that wasn’t true. My career in journalism began by accident when I started volunteering at a local community radio station. Stumbling upon this route gave me an unexpected career, and it turned out I didn’t need a university education to pursue it.

It will be a welcome development if MSPs can facilitate a real change of attitudes on university education. Young people are probably right when they point out that maintaining good university entrance rates is a big factor for schools concerned about reputation, and so there should be more incentives to include apprenticeship, work experience programmes and the entering the workplace directly from school as positive performance metrics.

Going to university is a great thing, but it’s not for everybody. We need to make sure kids are valued for the skills they have, not punished by our attitudes because they excel in areas other than academia.


The internet erupted on Friday after a Conservative MP, Sir Christopher Chope, blocked the passage of a bill to make upskirting a criminal offence in England.

For those who don’t know, upskirting is the practice of taking a photograph up a woman’s skirt. It seems farcical, like it belongs in the same realms as strange men who steal underwear from washing lines. However, neither of those behaviours are remotely normal, funny or mischievous. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who indulges in either of those things and it takes about half a second to realise how disturbing it actually is.

The good news in Scotland is that upskirting is already a crime here. Hopefully England and Wales will follow suit soon.