Collecting Certificates

Today, in Exeter and presumably in other towns and cities, students are waking up to a new academic year. Some will be nervous, especially those who are away from home for the first time, aren’t sure whether they’ve made the right choices and are wondering if they’ll ever earn enough to pay back their student loans. Others will be raring to go; maybe beginning a postgraduate degree, knowing what to expect and looking forward to the academic rigour. Others will just have a really thick head and be wondering how they got back to their room after the last night of Freshers’ Week.

This is also the time of year when the more mature among us start studying once more. We sign up for evening classes in an art or a craft that we’ve long wanted to learn about; or we start work on an Open University module, either as a stand-alone or as part of a longed-for qualification. Some of us even go back on campus and try out the life of a full-time student once more.

But why, I wonder, do we continue to chase after those certificates, those little bits of paper that mostly get pushed into drawers until copies are required when applying for yet another course later in life.

I seem to have spent half my life working towards one certificate or another. I still cherish the ones I got as a child, charting my gradual improvement in swimming, and the eight I gained for piano practice and theory, even though the only keyboards I play these days are on my laptop or my phone. I had forgotten until today that I got my two favourite certificates less than a month apart. That must have been an exciting time in the Ducie household!


I have a fist-full of ‘O’ levels in subjects I have long forgotten and some fair to middling ‘A’ levels. I was one of a very small number from my class who got into university at the first go — and then nearly threw it all away when too much partying and too little reading led to my failing my exams at the end of the first year. After a year out to re-sit,  I went on to finish my degree — but have to confess to remembering little or nothing from the modules that gave me yet another certificate. 

I have a piece of paper telling me I have a doctorate from London University, plus one for a Diploma from Imperial College. I remember very little of the work that kept me bent over a microbiology bench for three years, although the occasional fact relating to the toxicity of ethylene oxide does drift across my subconscious. I still use the title ‘Dr’, but confess this is a hangover from my more feminist days when it saved me from having the Ms. Versus Mrs. argument yet again.

In the late 1980s, I studied for an MBA. One finance exam in the final term was so dreadful that I finished the paper by writing an apology to the lecturer and then declaring tearfully “that was the last exam I will ever take!” My sister, much wiser than me, said “Yeah, right — until the next time”, but it took nearly twenty years for her to prove me wrong.

This time last year, I was graduating from Exeter with an MA in Creative Writing. I declared at the time “OK, that’s it; no more studying. Now is the time to get on and do! I’m just going to write!” So why do I find myself watching with envy those students heading up the hill to college — and wish it was me starting lectures again this week instead of my husband who is on his third Masters course, still eagerly reading and learning.

These days getting information about anything — whether it’s how to write, how the human body works, or how to write a blistering marketing strategy — is relatively easy. With the internet, we don’t even have to leave our seats. We can interact with other students online. We can read the experiences and insights of all the experts. So why is it we are continually drawn back to the classic model of one teacher sitting at the front of a class (whether physical or virtual) imparting their knowledge to a group of eager pupils who will later on feed that knowledge back in the hope of getting yet another certificate?

Or is that just me?

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By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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