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Opinion

Transforming lives: How university changed the trajectory of my life

30 Jun 2024 6 minute read
Aberystwyth University.

Professor Jon Timmis, Vice-Chancellor, Aberystwyth University

In the face of funding cuts, rising costs and an uncertain policy landscape, it’s no secret that higher education in Wales and the UK is facing significant pressures.

Arguments for supporting higher education largely concentrate on the economic benefits that universities contribute to society – through innovation, job creation and skills development.

And understandably so given the significant impact universities have in this area, generating over £5bn of impact and more than 61,000 jobs across Wales each year.

However, in our focus on the figures, we’re perhaps in danger of overlooking the most important element of higher education: the very people who choose to go to university and the transformative impact it can have on their lives.

To my mind the value of a university education cannot be overstated. We know that going to university pays off – from job security and earnings, to career ambitions and social mobility.

Stepping stone

Research by Universities UK found that 74% of Welsh graduates credit going to university with enabling them to find the job they wanted. And it’s more than just a stepping stone to a career. It’s also a gateway to personal growth and fulfilment, with 73% of graduates from the
same survey stating that going to university helped to build their self-confidence.

As the Vice-Chancellor of Aberystwyth University I am acutely aware of the transformative power of higher education and the profound and positive impact it can have on individuals and communities.

My own journey is a testament to the life-changing opportunities that higher education offers. Originally working in the catering industry, I moved to Aberystwyth and, after various jobs, decided to retrain for a different career. I studied for a BTEC in Computer Studies at Coleg
Ceredigion, which paved the way for my entry into university as a mature student.

This marked a pivotal moment in my life. For me it was a total career and life change. I look back on the ways that my experiences shaped who I am, from the lecturing staff who so effectively communicated their passion and knowledge, to my year in industry which helped me understand where I was heading and what path I wanted to take.

After gaining my degree, I worked as a research assistant, eventually going on to undertake a PhD. This transformed my trajectory, inspiring me to pursue a career in academia. My time at university not only equipped me with the skills and knowledge necessary for a new
profession but also instilled in me a sense of purpose and direction. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I used to be a chef, and now I am Vice-Chancellor of the very university where I started my journey.

And my story is just one of many. In the recent Transforming Lives campaign run by Universities Wales, we heard so many inspiring stories of lives that have been changed immeasurably – both professionally and personally – thanks to university.

After leaving school at 15 with no qualifications, Sharon Manning studied nursing at Bangor University as a mature student, later specialising as an oncology nurse. Sharon went on to pioneer a new service for ovarian cancer patients which saw her win a MacMillan Innovation Award and MacMillan Fellowship. In 2024 she was awarded an MBE for her ‘service to cancer patient care’. Sharon says that having the opportunity to attend university at the age of 43 has changed her life completely.

For many participants in the campaign, their time at university has put them on a career trajectory that they otherwise would not have thought possible. From Stop Animation graduate Tim Allen who worked on Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film Pinocchio, to first-generation student Rebecca Davies who is now working as a bespoke designer for Rolls Royce thanks to a previous internship she secured as part of her course.

And it’s not just career success. It was striking how many of the stories we heard credited their time at university with changing them on a personal level, helping them to broaden their horizons and improve their confidence and self-belief.

Confidence

After suffering with depression and anxiety for many years, Hayley Harris said that achieving her BA in History from the Open University in Wales has done wonders for her self-esteem. Meanwhile, for Caitlin Tanner who is profoundly deaf, university set her on a path she did not
believe she could achieve because of her deafness. The support of her university fuelled her confidence in herself and her academic capabilities.

It’s clear that choosing to go to university can be life-altering path that opens doors, broadens horizons, and empowers individuals to reach their full potential.

Yet, amidst the celebration of individual success stories lies a sobering reality. Wales is facing significant participation challenges. The gap in 18-year-old participation between Wales and the UK as a whole is also at its widest for over 15 years, creating a distinct
possibility that we will have cohorts of young people less well-qualified than their immediate predecessors.

This is a concerning trend that demands urgent attention. Without access to a university education, the individuals featured in our Transforming Lives campaign – and thousands more like them – may never have had the opportunity to realise their full potential.

With the advent of Medr, the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, we have an important opportunity to tackle the participation challenge. It will be crucial that Medr works to understand how to improve and support Welsh participation in education and training to secure opportunities both for today's students and for future generations.

As someone who has greatly benefited from a university education, I am committed to paying forward those opportunities afforded to me and empowering others to realise their full potential.

University changes lives and offers new life chances and opportunities that might otherwise not have been possible. It is a catalyst for personal fulfilment, social mobility and economic prosperity.

And it is something that should be available to anyone who has the desire and potential to make the most of those opportunities and transform the trajectory of their life.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
14 days ago

Speaking for myself and an absent fellow Aber mature student and old friend the combination of Coleg Harlech and Aber working in sync was fantastic…

We both did handbrake turns…

My younger friend really made the most of it but when returns he visits his old tutors who I suspect, cherish him…

and Aber is such a nice environment, one’s heart cannot help but lift with such a panorama…

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