Is University Really Worth It?

By Mark Sims →
It’s a question that plagues young designers around the world, but since the rise in tuition fees here in the UK it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more. I myself was one of the last few years of students to get the cheaper tuition fees of around £3,500 per year; when you look at it that seems a bit of a bargain. Or is it? 



I was not new to the world of design when I came to university, I had worked in-house for a national gym franchise as well as working as a part-time freelancer for a couple of years, and as a result I was very shocked by the way in which universities see ‘the real world’.

One would expect to go to university to learn all about the world of design and be prepared for the industry that you’re set to earn you living from, this however, is simply not the case. I spent a lot of my time there frustrated at what I was being ‘taught’ and the fact that if I were to even mention the words ‘corporate’ or ‘industry’ I would be looked at with a stare that said “Are you having a laugh? You don’t get to be a designer by actually preparing for a career in it!”
Time after time we would be tasked with briefs that to me seemed more like something taken from a fine art course than a course based around the art of design, briefs such as ‘Boredom’. Yes that was the whole brief, one word. One word which we were then to let our minds wander and create anything we wanted as long as we could roughly, through a long winded bullsh*t answer, relate back to that one word. Now, as someone who had worked in the industry before, and does again so now, I have never come across anything like that and I doubt I ever will. We work to briefs, we get told what a client wants, and we use our skills and knowledge base to best satisfy their needs. This happened, a lot.

It became clear to me that what was being created was a class full of free thinking artists that would dream up elaborate concepts with no regard to practicality, time, or cost implications. For someone who had come straight from lower education to university to be taught this I feel is endangering their chance to work in the industry, after all you don’t just become the new Sagmeister overnight.

I ended up leaving university midway through my final year, as I was so fed up of this idea of what design education was, and set up www.mark-sims.co.uk to work as a freelance designer again. Whilst many people at university may never want to be a freelancer I doubt many have the skills to do it after being taught in the manner they are at university. They would simply not turn over enough work to make it sustainable; I feel this would also be true for working at an agency.
This is obviously just one man’s point of view, who studied at one university, and it may be a lot different for many others out there. A lot of people will have studied at university and learned a whole host of skills they now rely on as an employee of the design industry but from my experience I imagine these people are in the minority. Now I’m not saying everything about university was bad, because it isn’t. The main benefit for me was that it gave me time to get perspective and mature enough to know this is what I wanted to do for a living, as well as the added bonus of meeting lots of new contacts who can come in useful from time to time. Had I tried to set up as self-employed before coming to university I would have failed miserably.
So, is university worth it? It’s a bit vague really, from the perspective of someone looking just to get a qualification and learn new skills for the world of design employment? Probably not. Just go and get some experience somewhere; you will learn far more and your portfolio will speak more for you than a degree ever will.
If however, you are looking to simply have a bit of time to think things over whilst still being in a creative environment then yes, university is a great option. Even through the frustration of my 2 and a half years I still had a great time and met some great people.    

If you are thinking of a career in the design industry and are thinking about university, really think about what you want to get out of it and do your research on the course you’re looking at. Find out from past students what it is ACTUALLY like, not what the course tutors tell you it’s like.

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Toon Creffield

Graphic and Digital Designer from Sheffield England and owner of the Estetica Design Forum.