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Tom Yates

BA English

'I’m a case administrator for the London Probation Trust and worked full time through my four years of studying. I was doing an NVQ through work and someone suggested I do a degree. I wasn’t keen on the idea of full-time student life and a friend told me you could do a degree part-time, and recommended Birkbeck. But for ages I forgot the name and kept Googling Burbank, and getting US airports.

'When I finally found the website it sounded great. I heard about it in September, finally read up about it, went to a January Open Evening and signed up, and started the following year.

'The crucial factors for me were that Birkbeck offered evening study, it was in London and it had classroom teaching – I knew you could study part time mainly through the internet but I wanted the added commitment of classroom learning.

'I didn’t get many qualifications at school. I signed up for 3 AS levels, but one was cancelled mid-way through the year, and so I left college with just 2 full A-levels.

'When I was 18, the people I knew were going to uni and older friends had finished, but it seemed to me they were either studying something they didn’t enjoy or a subject in a field they didn’t want to work in later - or something so specific I couldn’t see how it would be beneficial. A lot of people went to uni, predominantly, just for the social aspect, not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. But I didn’t meet many students who were happy with what they had done, and that initially put me off a bit. It’s a big undertaking and I didn’t want to rush into making a decision I might later regret.

'I thought a lot about what I wanted to study and decided on English. I realised very soon I would need to improve my health, so I joined a gym – I had two or three lectures a week and it was so physically tiring I was always falling asleep! But after a few months I got used to it and it was great.

On working full-time/studying part-time

'The pressures of studying are different when you’re funding yourself and either paying up front or in monthly instalments. You do start to think about all the time you’ll be giving up in the evenings, and what you are missing out on – but if that’s just going home and watching EastEnders three times a week, you realise it’s no big deal!  

'My girlfriend at the time was very supportive of the idea, as were my work colleagues. A lot of people said they didn’t know how I could manage both work and study, but I felt I was due for some hard work after flunking my A-levels! My parents were particularly supportive throughout, and they enjoyed taking the day off work to see me graduate!

'The standard of teaching was terrific – some of the lecturers were so inspiring it influenced my choices about what to study. The PhD students who ran sessions were also great. When I applied I wasn’t thinking about Birkbeck’s research reputation – I’d seen students’ comments about that on the web, but at that stage it just went over my head!

'The students were all very different, but quite quickly there was a core group of people I made friends with. I was the youngest by far – one guy had a son older than me - but we all got on and we still meet up. The age differences between us were never an issue.

On the costs of studying

'Studying at Birkbeck has challenged my thinking. The issues about tuition fees and whether taxpayers should pay for people’s higher education, and the huge debts that full-time studying can accrue, have become the subject of much debate, but it’s not one I’ve ever engaged with properly nor felt confident about wading into. I worked full-time, paid for it myself, and have no student loans hanging over my head. I don’t know why this way isn’t an option that more people consider and talk about. It’s also a shame that much of the debate is focused purely on the employment and financial possibilities a degree can bring you –this is understandable given the rise in tuition fees, but more people should talk about just how fantastic and fulfilling the experience of studying at a higher level can be.

'Because I was working full time I was able to pay for it myself. It meant that for four years I didn’t have a holiday. I have a small amount of debt - but nothing compared to what it would be if I had studied full time, and I would never have done as well. Doing it part-time made me a better student, I was more determined and focused as it made me think ‘this is my money and time, and I mustn’t waste it’.

On the benefits of a degree

'I mainly undertook a degree for personal fulfilment, but going into my 4th year I also acted up in a new role for 13 months, which was effectively a promotion.  Studying at Birkbeck definitely improved my confidence at work, and helped me take on more responsibilities.

'I like to think future employers will look at my Birkbeck degree and recognise the work and commitment that went into it. It’s not nothing to do a full-time job and get a degree at the same time – or so I hope potential employers think!

'I definitely intend to study again. Birkbeck will be my first in my mind when I begin looking at MAs, but I want to wait a little bit – maybe next September. I’m thinking of teaching English abroad.

'Going to Birkbeck was by far and away the best thing I’ve ever done. I remember thinking ‘four years is a long time – I’ll be 28 and the Olympics will have happened by the time I graduate’. Then I remembered all that was going to happen anyway – the only difference would be whether I had a degree or not!'

Find out more about our English courses.

'Studying at Birkbeck definitely improved my confidence at work.'