Thrilled as I was, I didn’t for one minute expect to get any further. Call me a pessimist, but from looking at the academic credentials of my fellow “shortees” (University of York, Oxford, Warwick etc) I felt as I have been repeatedly made to feel since leaving university; that my non-Redbrick university background meant I was destined for the bottom of the consideration pile. I believed my shortlisting was a fluke, or perhaps even an attempt to initially showcase a more open minded competition - one that wasn’t so Oxford / Cambridge led as the awards had been criticised for in the past.
Perhaps this sounds very bitter, but I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who is incredibly fed up of being made to feel incompetent because I didn’t go to a “top” university. Never mind that I achieved a very high first, got the top mark of my university course, all my NCTJ preliminary qualifications, the top dissertation mark, managed to hold down a job whilst attaining all this etc, oh no, the fact is, my CV doesn’t read ‘Redbrick’, therefore it is no good.
How do I know this is the case? You may ask. You’re being ridiculous, you may accuse. It isn’t all like that, you may retain. And I hope you’re right. But if I got a £1 for every job vacancy I have forlornly read that says; “candidates not from a top ten university need not apply” or “Redbrick universities only”, or even the testimonials of previous successful journalism graduates I have seen explaining their esteemed university background, then I wouldn’t need to a get job; but instead would live happily in my early retirement on the south coast in a lovely seaside cottage.
The part that most frustrates me is the fact that I am being judged on how I was over seven years ago. I will be twenty-five in January, and as with most people, am very different to how I was aged seventeen / eighteen. I wasn’t perfect then (not that I’m saying I am now but you get my drift), and for various reasons had lost motivation at school and didn’t achieve as everyone expected, or more importantly, as I should of.
It would have been good for everyone to remember that I didn’t do that badly either – but the fact is, I’d mucked up my chances of getting into all the “acceptable” universities. This was a big slap in the face, and I realised I needed some time out to re-think my plans and re-focus my ambitions. So I bought a one-way ticket to Australia via Asia, and didn’t return for another two and a half years.
This was a very valuable period of my life when I learnt many important, often hard-hitting life lessons; something, I would argue, a lot of students lack education within (even those from the top universities). Most importantly though, those years gave me the precious ‘time’ element so many are forced to make do without, to truly consider what I was really passionate about and decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life - and that was journalism. I also was obviously far more mature by the time I commenced university because of my experiences (anyone who objects can see me), and I know for fact I would never have tackled the unusual subjects I did within my journalism work at university (Afghan refugees, gay erotic writers, Jehovah witnesses, Uganda) if I hadn’t had taken that time out to get a bit of perspective on life, and to grow up.
My point is, I believe there shouldn’t be so much weight in society today on academia alone. As long as a person is intellectually qualified to a perform the available role – irrelevant of where they gained that suitable knowledge –then there is no reason why a candidate from Portsmouth (for example), shouldn’t be judged as equally as a candidate from Oxford. Instead, factors such as extra merits and relevant experiences they themselves are responsible for having, should determine the eventual victor.
When my name was called as the runner up for the Guardian’s writer of the year award, I became entranced in an astonished bubble. I had been that certain it wasn’t me, yet there was my name flashing up on the screen and expectant, smiling heads looking back and coaxing me to take my place on the stage. The next sequence of actions: going up on stage, being congratulated, having my photo taken, floating back to my previous position - all happened so quickly that I didn’t even hear who’d won. I was just so overwhelmed.
And you know who it turned out had won in the end? The guy from Manchester Metropolitan University – or for other words, the other non-Redbrick university ‘shortee’. It was nice – the Guardian had recognised us. They had read our work, as our work, not as “non-Redbrick” attempters, and it felt good.
So perhaps I should eat my words and learn to be more positive. And assuming that people start to take more notice - then I will.
And don’t get me wrong - I genuinely have nothing against those who did attend Redbrick universities - many I’ve met and am friends with often amaze me with their intellect (as have, notably and in keeping with the theme of this blog, many who didn’t). I am merely asking that those who did not attend “the greats” are not immediately written off because as I, the winner of the writer of the year, and the winner of the publication of the year (Kingston University) have proven, we also some pretty good stuff to offer.
For a final thought, I must tell the story that always comes to mind when I think Oxford / Cambridge students (unfortunately for them perhaps). On safari in Uganda I met a Cambridge medical student who was only too keen to repeat to everyone as often as possible her university background. It was lunchtime, and upon my purchase of a cheeseburger she naively enquired, “Oh, are you vegetarian then?” There was a short silence as I pondered whether she was being serious. She was. No, I eventually replied. Because that would be a cheese sandwich wouldn’t it?
This is why I know I don’t need a Redbrick education to do well.