This is an article I prepared for Access:VFX. I’d been finding that people were starting to stereotype Universities, especially as they tried to articulate the value of apprenticeships. It’s as if it’s necessary to paint University study as all ‘academic tomes and ivory towers’ in order to position Apprenticeships as the binary opposite. People don’t like nuance, but prefer black and white, so I’ve also been a little simplistic in this response. I want to reassure young people that there’s a rich spectrum of opportunities out there, whether you choose Apprenticeships or Degrees.
People often have misconceptions about Universities and degree courses. Let’s bust some myths!
“Universities! they’re all the same”
When people talk about Universities, they lump them all together not recognising the wide variety of character, history, cultures and ways they operate. Universities may all teach degrees in the same subjects, but just like VFX companies each has a different cultural feel. As such it’s important to get a sense of which might be right for your needs.
As an example Norwich University of the Arts has around two thousand students in total, in a city with a medieval history, whereas Teesside University has around twenty thousand on a purpose built campus, close to major industrial cities. Their history and environments mean they have different ‘flavours’ to suit different people. Do some research, spend some time going to these places- you will be spending three years of your life there.
“University study is all academic, it’s all about theory”
Not so! It’s true that the degree standard involves some written communication, but the majority of good courses are about practice these days. I’d say it’s easily 90% of your actual time is about making stuff, and the rest is about helping you to explain the stuff you make. Employability is one of the things Universities are judged on by government, so there’s real incentives for them to teach practical skills these days.
Most Universities will insist on you writing essays, research documents or dissertations, but the good news is there is a lot of support for this if you are not a natural writer. Also it’s recognised that creative subjects often attract dyslexic or what is often now referred to as ‘neurodiverse’ students so there is often support to help students write what they need.
“Accreditation is the only way to know which are the good courses”
Accreditation is when a third party (usually representing industry like ScreenSkills, BKSTS or JAMES) awards a course a quality rating based on assessment of what it does. In most cases Universities have to pay to be accredited, and some universities are richer than others. Some universities choose not to spend up to four thousand pounds on accreditation, but think it’s better to spend the money on their students and resources. Don’t believe an accredited course is necessarily better than an unaccredited one. Its true accredited courses have passed industry scrutiny, so that’s great, but this is only one of the things you might want to take into account.
It’s important to realise a good student on a mediocre course can still perform and learn amazing things if they put their mind to it. The real factor that leads to getting a great job at the end of a degree is your own dedication, whatever course you choose. An accredited course suggests that industry assessors rate the quality and professional experience you get on that course- but they can’t speak for courses they haven’t assessed. If you are expecting any course to give you the skills you need, you need to change your perspective. Your attitude and work ethic far outweighs any other factors. An accredited course is a sign of quality, but won’t get you a job in itself.
“The industry is in London so you’re at an advantage studying there”.
For the last 500 years Cambridge has been one of the best and most important Universities in the world for talent. It’s not in London, but its students seem to do alright…
Whilst much of the VFX industry is in London, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an advantage if you can’t mix with them. Also many well-respected courses are outside London. The culture of London life might be important to you, and that’s a much better reason to choose London, but also bear in mind as a student you probably won’t be trawling the nightspots and galleries as much as you think. Well organised trips to London can give you a good perspective on the industry too.
“You are a consumer, so choose the most attractive offer and easiest option”.
When choosing your course don’t be fooled by the easiest option. You’ll be surprised how many people when asked for their reason for applying to a University course will say, “it’s near where I live”. It’s a good reason but convenience shouldn’t be your main reason. You’ve got to have some ambition and grit. Remember, if you are now the customer, the University is now the salesperson, so it’s in their interest to sell you some courses. Get a second opinion. Then get a third. Listen to people not website PR. Don’t be impressed by bright spangly architecture or facilities. Sure its great to have access to a Student Bar/VR equipment/Mo-Cap gear etc but ask about computer labs and the library’s film collections, the campus bus service and the ordinary stuff that will be part of your everyday experience.
Go somewhere where you think you might be challenged.
Here’s the thing- this stuff isn’t easy, and there will be times you get frustrated or despondent about your learning- it happens to all of us- but the rewards coming through on the other side are amazing. So choose a course and a University where you think you’ll be challenged, rather than one that offers you access to free beer and a petting zoo. Your brain needs to be stretched, not just your wallet.
“You can’t get professional work experience on a university course”.
Many courses allow a sandwich year of work placements, or are flexible for internships within the second or third year. These are especially useful because it puts in context the skills you’re learning. Also ‘live briefs’ set by industry professionals on your course can really help you get a great showreel of industry specific work.
Work simulation is also recognised by educationalists and psychologists as a great way to apply yourself and learn real skills, and this is what good courses do with the projects they set. You can experience a wide variety of roles on some courses too, which will help you decide on your future direction.