Is university worth it? That’s a question you wouldn’t dream of asking in 1980, when just over one in ten 18-year-olds were in college. At the time, degrees were seen as a golden ticket to an illustrious career. Today, about half of young people enter university; most of them are now graduates with around £ 45,000 in debt, and a small number are struggling to find employment afterwards.
It is also a question that became more complicated last year when the Covid transformed the university experience. This fall’s freshmen have no idea what the job market will look like once they graduate (it’s currently the worst since 2008). Some people think that’s more of a reason why you should go to college. Here, two experts offer their point of view.
Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford
“Without this certificate, you could find yourself excluded from a high level career”
Since the early 1990s, the number of young people in the UK attending university has doubled. Because of this spectacular expansion, some young people conclude that the value of a diploma must have fallen. This is understandable logic, but it is wrong. In fact, there is a broad consensus that as more and more young people enter university, the cost of not having a degree increases. Without this very important certificate, you could find yourself excluded from a high level professional career. School leavers say they have to push harder for every opportunity.
In the UK, graduates earn around £ 10,000 more each year than non-graduates, according to Department of Education figures released in 2019. Of course, there are variations between courses and institutions. Graduates from science and engineering courses tend to earn more than those who studied the arts. But even humanities degrees are extremely valuable; they give students confidence and autonomy, allowing them to flourish in the professional world. Some of the most accomplished figures in British life have studied the humanities.
Not everyone likes to write essays or attend lectures, of course. But anyone considering a white-collar career should think carefully before leaving college. Teens from rich, well-connected backgrounds are likely to be successful anyway, but for less fortunate youth, including most of the middle classes, a degree can be transformative.
Some adolescents are still afraid of fees; most universities in England now charge £ 9,250 per year. This is an understandable but misplaced concern. The UK system means graduates only have to start repaying their loan once they earn enough money.
Euan Blair, CEO of Multiverse, a start-up connecting young people and apprentices
“I have seen thousands of apprentices reach new heights thanks to my start-up”
For years, college was seen as the only option for ambitious young people. Now that has changed. Today’s teens can make a decision. If they want to study an academic subject such as ancient history (as I did at the University of Bristol in the early 2000s), the university is there. But if they want to win while learning, in an industry they are passionate about, learning has become a fantastic option.
And the good news is, you can land a brilliant job anyway. Many parents associate learning with manual work, but the fastest growing areas of learning are technology and professional services. Some of the best companies in the world, including Facebook, WPP, Google, and Mercedes-Benz, are now hiring non-graduates. I have seen thousands of apprentices reach new heights thanks to my start-up.
Getting half the young people into college made sense when the pledge was made over 20 years ago. At the time, it was generally believed that more people attending university meant a more skilled workforce, as well as a wider range of opportunities. But since then, we’ve seen a major disconnect between the content taught by universities and the skills employers need, exacerbated by the pace of technological change.
The increase in the number of students did not create a level playing field, some thought it would. Almost half of those accepted into the best corporate graduate programs went to a private school, for example. Since the introduction of tuition fees of over £ 9,000, one in five graduates would have been financially better off had they never been to college, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
For years, apprenticeship was viewed as an inferior option, and schools struggled to point students in their direction. But their reputation has exploded; during the pandemic, our apprentices remained remarkably clingy in their jobs, while many of their peers were made redundant or put on leave. We are now training as many apprentices from the richest households as from the poorest households.