Some Thoughts About University and Why I Dropped Out

I spent two years at a music university in London with one more year to go but I decided to quit now. Many people told me, “Dude, just finish the degree, it’s only one more year.” But man, that’s a long time of doing something that doesn’t really contribute to my personal and professional development. And I want to explain to you why that’s the case.

But first let me tell you about my mindset going into university. Contrary to what my mom believes, having a degree isn’t important to me. Everyone has one so what’s so special about yours? A degree is weak evidence for a potential employer to understand that you are capable of following basic orders and managing your time well enough to hit deadlines. It doesn’t mean you’re in any way competent at those things, merely capable, and it shouldn’t require attending university for a young adult to embody such characteristics anyway. Additionally, the content of what you studied is rarely important unless you’re lucky enough to get a job in the specific field of your study. But my goal was never to work for another person in the first place. Perhaps it’s necessary for a while but it’s not my goal.

On the other hand, university is a great place for you to demonstrate to yourself, your peers, and your teachers that you are indeed competent by the degree to which you apply yourself to your studies, your social and work life, and your private affairs. So I’m not saying that universities are all bad because there is obviously a lot of utility in learning about yourself and your position the world, and universities generally have the necessary tools to facilitate that process.

Anyway, I devised a game plan for this university chapter in my life and the plan was to spend the first year doing everything the university and tutors asked of me. I’d work and practice until I couldn’t play or think anymore, I’d study in and outside of uni, and I’d perform on stage doing what my teachers told me to do. I’d comply with every rule and attempt to exceed or at the very least meet every standard the university set for me in order to get the best grade possible.

For my second year, I’d do everything I wanted to do. I’d perform songs with my personal interpretation, I’d practice what I wanted to practice, and I’d read a lot about psychology, business, and the intricacies of political movements instead of music-related subjects. And I’d write essays about what I wanted to research while roughly remaining within the context of the assessment brief as a precaution so I don’t fail. I’d set my own personal development standards that had very little to do with those necessary to receive a good grade.

If I decided to continue to cope with the academic pressures of the final year, I would’ve gone back to the game plan I had in year one for the sake of my degree.

Well, I finished my first year with a grade average of 72%, which sounds really bad to all of you Americans but in the British grading system, anything above 70% is excellent and constitutes as a first class honours, which is the highest honours classification. There are many reasons why that shouldn’t be viewed as a high academic achievement at this point in time, one of them being the exponential grade inflation over the past decades, but on paper I was an excellent student.

I finished my second year with a grade average of 62%, which isn’t that much worse but it’s definitely a product of my limited adherence to the assessment outlines of my university.

So here’s the underlying problem: Your teachers will tell you that their job is to encourage and assist you in your many areas of development as a human being. That is a very noble job description and if it were up to me, teachers would receive a much higher financial compensation for the amount of physical and psychological strain to which they’re subjected day after day. If it weren’t for the creativity-killing array of bureaucratic university guidelines, teachers would actually be enabled to execute their job under the aforementioned description, but they can’t. It’s as if the individual creative coaching potential of an effective teacher is tied to and suffocated by a replicable, standardised syllabus that dictates the content and outcome of what happens in the classroom.

The following is a practical example that my friend Dustin Dooley gave me a while ago. He’s an experienced vocal coach, highly skilled multi-instrumentalist and singer, producer and on top of all that he owns a label. So he said something like this:

“It’s strange that vocalists are taught in a group, at least at an advanced level such as at a music university. A singer’s voice is the most personal instrument and training it properly requires individual coaching sessions because everyone’s voice is different. If singers are taught in a group, the content of what can be taught needs to be completely basic and homogeneous in order for it to apply to every singer in the group, but that strongly restricts the speed at which singers can progress and develop their vocal skills.”

This clearly outlines a fundamental issue about the concept of human potential. Students are paying money they might not necessarily have for substandard information that under-prepares them for the brutality of life outside of university. To then have the gumption to describe a university as a place for young people to develop their potential and efficiently work towards reaching it is incommensurate with the reality of how universities are structured.

It seems to me that the purpose of a university is to enable students to familiarise themselves with the procedures pertinent to adhering to guidelines, implement tools for students to develop adequate time management skills, and facilitate social engagements through events and in-class collaborations and discussions.

I’m not saying that universities completely remove a student’s ability to develop their potential, but I am saying that universities regulate that ability inefficiently.

There is a silver lining, however. If you have no idea what you want to do with your life and you also have no idea what your interests and talents are as well as what your inefficiencies are, then you should go to university. At least there you are provided with the necessary mechanisms to shape your character, seek out and pursue your interests, and develop certain competencies. It’s completely up to you how hard you want to work, but at least the university gives you the freedom to work on that.

I spent a long time thinking about my own character and my talents and disabilities before I came to university, so those mechanisms weren’t of much use to me at that point. Instead, I wanted to find out how fast I can develop personally and professionally within a university setting instead of within a company setting. To be honest, I developed very quickly in terms of my technical abilities on my instrument because I put in the time and the effort, but it’s as if the university has a creativity speed limit and if you maintain a speed higher than the limit, the academic police will eventually stop you and remind you to stick to the assessment brief no matter how good your essay was. And that’s precisely why I dropped out after two years.

There are many more things I could say about this subject because it involves so many other concepts such as freedom and truth and all that, but as of this moment I’ve written more than 1,300 words and that’s quite a drag for someone just stumbling across a blog post on the Internet. So that’s that for now and, of course, good luck to all current and future university students, especially to my valued friends at BIMM.

1 Comment

  1. As someone submitting my PhD thesis next month (in an academic, rather than vocational subject) I actually totally agree with you. I always describe university as a ‘useful stepping stone into adult life’ and the only way to get true academic freedom is to pursue a (probably unfunded – because funding always comes with it’s own limitations) PhD or other higher degree (like an MRes). It’s hugely unfortunate that so many employers require any degree to apply for jobs, as if it’s some kind of hard and fast intelligence test, honestly, I didn’t even want to do a PhD right now, I wanted to be a lecturer FIRST, but that’s not a viable career path!

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