This post was inspired by a comment I made in my last post. Rather arrogantly, I spouted a line that I later wondered about:

“ have to accept this simple fact: our most basic drive is the propagation of our genes with the fittest partners available to us.”

I read a lot of Desmond Morris a decade ago and I realised after posting this that I haven’t actually updated my understanding of contemporary theories of human behaviour in quite a while. I’m also suspicious of anyone who shouts FACT after their statements. So I asked Google to help me out.

I went sniffing around the internet for postgrad courses in behavioural psychology and behavioural ecology thinking, ahhh you know maybe I can justify spending a few grand on a distance learning masters in a few years time since this is an area that I’m really interested in personally and professionally (I reckon effecting systemic change through shifting societal values is a bloody useful way to spend a life!).

Then I found this (just close your eyes and listen if the terrible camera work gets too annoying):

And I was like, Woah!

So. I want to talk about education and study, because it’s a subject that nicely pulls together a lot of things relevant to the purpose of this blog:

  1. Awesome, invigorating, potentially life-changing, mind-expanding intellectual ideas and experiences – GOOD!
  2. Tyrannical propagation of doctrines, social structures, and behaviour and the cruel destruction of self-belief, creativity and ambition in most people – BAD!
  3. Fantastic opportunities to ‘hack’ the system and choose alternative paths than what we are generally offered – AWESOME!

I have massive issues with the entire traditional educational system in the UK, but this is really aimed at further education, adult learners, lifelong learners, whatever. People who are now choosing to get a bit more educated. I use the word choosing very loosely on the most part because I don’t think the majority of people are making informed decisions, but I absolutely believe that everyone from 16 upwards should better understand the choices they are making around education

As noted in On Beginning, I did A-Levels which were, for me at least, not a complete waste of time. I took what had by then become known as a gap year: now synonymous with drunken tours of south east Asia. Believe me, I know drunken tours, so don’t think I’m trying to be ‘above’ that kind of thing when I say that I was only calling it a gap year because I had no concept that it didn’t need to be a gap anything. It could just be an adventure.

In my 16-18 year old brain there was simply no debate about whether or not I should be going to university. It was just somehow inevitable. I didn’t particularly like school but I liked learning and so I’m not saying I definitely shouldn’t have been planning on going to university, but I am saying saying there should have been at least some debate in my head, especially given I was a fairly independently minded kid.

Well, there wasn’t any debate, and that says a lot about the power of social indoctrination on young people and the terrible advice given by everyone from parents to teachers with the entirely pointless careers advisor thrown in (“What can I say? I advise you to get a career!” – Eddie Izzard). That a degree is now seen by society as something that is a pre-requisite for a decent job, and that now so many people are graduating the same thing is happening to Masters courses, it’s very hard to find the space to question the actual benefits and the alternatives on offer.

While of course I don’t want to suggest that nobody should ever go to university, the stampede to get these qualifications appals me. So I present my experiences of further education to date and the lessons therein, that others may benefit!

There will now follow a brief history of the education of Martin. Do not attempt to adjust your monitors. You are about to participate in a great adventure… (low budget sci fi fans click here!)

Full-time Degree Attempt 1 – The Good Turned Bad

My first experience of Uni was at Aberystwyth, studying International Relations and the Third World. A very good course, a world renowned department, an awesome location and some very interesting people around on campus. My lecturers were experts and had literally written the textbooks, and I found the essays and coursework stimulating. I loved living by the sea and I was looking forward to spending a semester in Canada as part of the exchange program.

But something just wasn’t clicking for me there and I left after a year despite doing pretty well. I had some personal stuff going on at the time and maybe if I hadn’t I would have had a really good time and by now I’d be working for the UN or something equally weird.

I don’t really have a point here except that, everything can be great, but if you’re not ready or properly motivated or interested or whatever, then going to university is a really huge waste of time and money. I incurred one year’s worth of student debt plus some personal debt as a result of this.

Distance or Online Learning

Holy Crap! Online what now?! You mean I can get a very good, highly respected degree at a fraction of the price and I can travel or work or live on a boat or do whatever the hell I like while I’m doing it?!

Why the didn’t anyone tell me this when I was still in school?! Seriously?!

Well I’m telling you now! There are lots of very reputable distance learning degrees, postgrad courses, diplomas, you name it. They are waaaaay cheaper than normal full time courses (about one third the price by my estimations), and they are really flexible so if you need to take 5 or even 10 years to complete it, that’s cool, or you can ramp it up and do it almost as quickly as everyone else.

I studied Environmental Studies with the University of Exeter. I completed my first modules while living in a tiny town in India called Dwarka, in a total love-funk, living like a dude on about £3 a day. Uni fees were £3,200 a year back then. My entire degree was going to cost less than that!

Later I spent some time in a national park and I used it as the basis for a bit of theoretical coursework while my other classmates used a made up example produced by the lecturer. I was smoking bidis and tracking Asiatic lions through the scrub under a full moon and scored 86% after writing up my results from a dingy hotel in Delhi!

I wanted to come back to the UK (I was lonely and broke) and so I applied to start another full time degree. You can’t get the government funding for part time courses but you can get 4 years of funding for full time courses. So I used the three I had left to buy myself three years of the good life in Cornwall with access to amazing film and photography equipment on a brand new Marine and Natural History Photography course (more on that in moment!).

So now, you will note, I am studying two degrees at once. Awesome kudos. Later on I got really smart. I read the rules and learned about credit transfer. All universities let you do a little bit of this. I was able to move 60 credits (half a year’s study) from my Aberystwyth days onto the course, saving me time and money.

At one point I ramped this up to 3 degrees at once by taking on a course with the Open University so that I could transfer the credits over to my Exeter course and finish before they stopped running it, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get the degree. Three degrees at once?! Mega kudos!

In truth, of course, the Falmouth course was less intellectually demanding than getting punched in the face repeatedly on a Saturday night in Cardiff. So juggling all this was easier than it sounded. Plus I had access to the library at Falmouth which also happened to be shared by the University of Exeter in Cornwall – clever!

For those who want or need a qualification, distance learning is an excellent choice. It’s cheaper and more flexible and you don’t have to stop working, or you can study while you swig Bintang in Bali. Plus if you’re worried it won’t be as prestigious, you don’t always have to let on that you studied distance learning. My degree is from the University of Exeter. Nobody needs to know more than that unless I want to tell them. However, I think among the right crowd it carries its own set of respect medals, since you’ve shown greater freedom of thought, motivation, and self-discipline than anyone who’s gone the usual route.

Full-time degree Attempt 2 – The Bad Turned Good

So there I was at University College Flmouth (Falmouth University now) on this brand new awesome sounding course – Marine and Natural History Photography (though filming was also part of the course). I had my environmental qualifications coming from Exeter, now I was gonna get my filming qualifications and soon I’d be David Attenborough quietly annoying all variety of exotic creatures with my grandfatherly voice and youthful eye twinkle.


This course was costing me over £3k a year and I was getting about 4 hours contact time with an academic staff that had practically zero qualification or experience on the subject matter. I liked some of them on a personal level, others belonged in a school classroom terrorising or being terrorised by children. Some did have great experience in a field with some small overlap but it was nowhere near enough.

I had some tremendous fights with these guys. They’d try to intimidate me by pulling me in to meetings where 4 of them were sat there in a room waiting to give me a grilling. I was not exactly impressed by these kinds of things so I’d quickly let them know I was cancelling the meeting and then I’d rearrange it with a representative from the student body to sit in and take notes. Most effective!

Apart from the lack of teaching, the quality was unbelievable. My favourite examples came from a professor who I have graciously chosen not to name. She was there to teach us about “science”, because almost all of the class had zero scientific background at all. Fair enough. I dig science.

She used to make claims such as, “the largest flower on earth is 20m across” (it’s actually the Rafflesia arnoldii – only 90cm across), and, “the gestation period of a lion is 2 years” (actual gestation period of a lion: just 110 days). I have no idea where she got this stuff from but it angered me that there were 35 or so people scribbling down everything she was saying verbatim. She did not like to be corrected, either!

For me, the final straw came when, during a class about climate change, she suggested that perhaps the hole in the ozone layer would let greenhouse gases escape into space and so maybe it was a good thing that we had created this hole after all!

I don’t know where to start attacking this, but for those not super sciencey let’s just remember that gases are not “kept in” the atmosphere by the ozone layer like air inside a balloon – the gases that make up the atmosphere are pulled toward the earth by gravity. So no, gases cannot ‘escape’ through a ‘hole’ into space like an alien being sucked out of a pressurised space ship into the infinite vacuum of the universe through a tiny hole in a window!

What really shook me was how, when I stood up to defend the whole of science from this bewildering nonsense (yes, I had to stand for this one), there were cries from behind me telling me to keep quiet, and do you know what they said?

“That’s science! Science is just a theory and that’s a theory!”*

She needed defending I guess. I stopped attending her classes entirely.

There are a few lessons from this. One is do your research. You are essentially purchasing a product when you sign on to any course, and given the cost of tuition fees, the lost income and career progression from 3-4 years that you would have been working, and the compounding interest on all the loans and debt you will accumulate, going to university will probably be one of the top 3 biggest financial decision you will ever make in your life.

An Independent on Sunday study puts the lifetime cost of a degree at £100,000! So think about that when you’re deciding your course and your university.

Another is know why you’re there, what your goals are, and make sure you are working towards them. It’s not just about getting a good grade. In fact that’s almost irrelevant. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a dick, everything I got from that course was a result of my own effort, and I had to fight tooth and nail for every concession, every opportunity, every step of the way. The university hated me trying to do the cool stuff that put me on my career path because they were afraid, in their words, that “everyone would want to do it”. Well how bloody brilliant if they all did want to go and spend 2 months on a small island filming conservation projects!

However, despite all this I had a great time and I achieved almost everything I wanted to achieve during those three years. I had so much time to myself that I could develop projects, earn money, and work on my other studies. The equipment and facilities were first rate, and I made some amazing friends and met some really inspirational people. I built up a great portfolio of projects, experiences and contacts and launched the expedition that created the job I still enjoy. What made me most angry was how 90% of the others on my course were too young to realise they were being duped and that they really could do something about it if they chose to. I’m sure they had a good time too, it’s just that the costs involved (and the one shot you have of getting them all paid for up front by loans) make university an incredibly stupid place to go just to have a good time.

The Internet & Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

So now we come full circle. Instead of looking at ways to burn a £9,000 hole in my pocket by studying a masters, I am now engrossed in Robert Sapolsky’s course and I have a few others that I’ve bookmarked for the future too.

Do you have any idea how much entirely free and awesome educational material is out there? I was kind of aware of this emergence of open access course materials, and the Kahn Academy, and that some of the big US universities were running these totally free and open access online courses (here are links to Yale and MITfor example), but I hadn’t ever really experienced any of it first hand.

Then I got sucked in to this amazing Stanford course by Sapolsky on human behavioural biology, which is completely free and available on You Tube, and find that it’s one of hundreds across a huge range of prestigious institutions and subjects.

Important point. These aren’t short 5 minute how to clips that teach you how to peel a boiled egg in 10 seconds. And the professors aren’t just crazies spouting out gibberish about carbon molecules seizing their opportunity and surging out of an atmospheric hole into infinite spacey freedom. These are courses by some of the top minds in their fields being given to students at some of the most expensive universities on earth, and they are completely free!

The Sapolsky one I think everyone should follow is a 36 hour series on some mind-bendingly interesting topics, and already I have learned shed loads about molecular evolution and genetics that I had no clue about before. I’m getting learned! Totally cool as Prof. Sapolsky would say!

Some of these MOOCs are readily available through You Tube or iTunesU, others are whole peer supported online learning environments that have beginning and end dates and resources and reading lists and – guess what – some of them will even give you a qualification at the end.

So here’s a MOOC being run by my old university on Climate Change.

And here’s one on Jazz Appreciation that sounds too cool to miss. Nice!

So What Have We Learned?

Formal, full-time, further education (ie University) is not the only option, is not a pre-requisite for getting a good job, is astronomically expensive, and you will likely only get one shot at it. So for goodness sake wait before you follow the herd and make a wise decision about whether and where you should go. If you do decide to go, do your research about the courses and who will be teaching it, adopt a healthy suspicion toward authority and question what you’re learning.

And, most importantly, fill those years with as much networking, work experience, professional practice, and awesome, fun-filled extra-curricular activity as possible.

Distance or Online Learning is cheaper, more flexible, and can carry extra brownie points. But you do require good self-motivation and you miss out on a lot of the cool stuff that’s going on in campuses and the general camaraderie of the whole university experience.

Open Access Education and Massive Open Online Courses are fantastic, free, and growing in number. Get some!

This is just a short list of useful sites I found for this post. Do you know of any others?

Put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list!

Thanks for reading :)

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