Should high-school graduates bypass university if they are not academically oriented? The idea was suggested in these pages in an op-ed on Tuesday (“Consider pursuing a degree with discretion,” page 8). The author, high-school teacher Lin Cheng-wu (林政武), said that for many students, “vocational education might suit them far better than a college degree.”
I relate to that sentiment. I shunned university after I realized in my late teens that I did not have such a scholarly mind. I was a straight-A student in arts courses such as drama, creative writing and photography, but the only academic subject I excelled in was English.
Instead of going to university, I went to a vocational college for a two-year broadcasting certificate.
However, I nonetheless recommend that students today aim for a degree and find a way to make university enjoyable.
After receiving my certificate, I did well working in the radio division at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Eight years later, budget cuts and a dying radio industry left me out of work.
I took a job with the federal government, but I was stuck at the clerical level for 10 years — it was impossible to advance without a degree. I found myself nearing 40 and typing letters for managers 10 years my junior.
To break the rut, I went to Singapore to work in its lucrative publishing market. Upon returning to Canada three years later, I struggled to find any kind of work in a job market that had become shockingly competitive.
Teaching English as a second language seemed like a natural fit, so I obtained a Cambridge CELTA certification, but it was of no use — a bachelor’s degree was a basic requirement at language schools at home and abroad.
I decided to “challenge” for a master’s degree, which is when someone without a degree applies for a master’s program based on life and work experience. The practice was once accepted in the West, but has become a rarity. I had to look abroad and was fortunate to be accepted into the applied linguistics master’s program at Chung Yuan University in Taoyuan.
Throughout my life, I have seen how many doors had shut behind me. Job markets that once did not require degrees now do. Countries such as Japan and Singapore, which once freely handed out work permits to foreigners, now require advanced degrees and qualifications.
A Taiwanese high-school graduate might do fine for a decade as a carpenter or a graphic designer without a bachelor’s degree, just as I once had fruitful employment after getting my vocational certificate.
However, one never knows what curveballs could be thrown later in life: a workplace injury that requires a new career direction; a vanishing job market; a desire to live abroad. Or, such as myself, one might find that they develop academic interests later in life and wish to study for a master’s degree — which turned out to be one of my most rewarding pursuits.
I enjoyed the work my broadcasting certificate led to, but there was a trade-off — life became more difficult as times changed, and the options are narrower for today’s young people than they were for me.
There are some good careers for those who are not academically inclined, but some fields can be more of a gamble than others when entering them without a degree.
I would advise teens considering skipping university to speak with an academic counselor about ways to chase a degree with the skills and interests they possess, or take a “gap year” to pursue something interesting while thinking about higher education.
Michael Riches is a copy editor at the Taipei Times.
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