Is a university degree still worth the time and money?

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Is university worth it? It’s a question you wouldn’t have dreamt of asking in 1980, when just over one in 10 18-year-olds went to university. Back then, degrees were seen as a golden ticket to an illustrious career. Now, about half of young people enter university; most of them now graduate with about £45,000 of debt, and a small number struggle to find jobs afterwards.

It’s also a question that became more complicated last year when Covid transformed the university experience. Freshers this autumn have no idea how the job market will look when they graduate (it’s currently the worst it has been since 2008). Some think that’s more of a reason you should go to university. Here, two experts offer their views.

YES 

Simon Marginson, Professor of higher education at Oxford University

‘Without that certificate you could find yourself locked out of a top career’

Since the early 1990s, the number of young people in the UK going to university has doubled. Because of this dramatic expansion, some youngsters conclude that the value of a degree must have fallen. It’s understandable logic, but it’s wrong. In fact, there’s a broad consensus that as ever more young people enter university, the cost of not having a degree gets higher. Without that all-important certificate, you could find yourself locked out of a top professional career. School leavers report having to push harder for every opportunity.

In the UK, graduates earn about £10,000 more each year than non-graduates, according to Department for Education figures published in 2019. Of course, there’s variation across courses and institutions. Graduates of science and engineering courses tend to earn more than those who studied arts. But even humanities degrees are immensely valuable; they give students confidence and agency, allowing them to flourish in the professional world. Some of the most accomplished figures in UK life studied humanities.

Not everybody likes writing essays or sitting in lectures, of course. But anybody who plans a white-collar career should think carefully before skipping university. Teenagers from wealthy, well-connected backgrounds will probably succeed either way, but for less-advantaged youngsters, including most of the middle classes, a degree can prove transformative.

Some teenagers remain afraid of fees; most universities in England now charge £9,250 per year. It’s an understandable but misplaced concern. The UK’s system means graduates only have to start repaying their loan once they’re earning a sufficient amount. 

NO

Euan Blair, CEO of Multiverse, a start-up linking young people with apprentices    

‘I’ve seen thousands of apprentices reach great heights through my start-up’

For years, university was deemed the only option for ambitious young people. Now that’s changed. Today’s teenagers can make a decision. If they want to study an academic subject such as ancient history (as I did at Bristol University in the early 2000s), university is there. But if they want to earn while they learn, in an industry that excites them, apprenticeships have become a fantastic option.

And the good news is that you can land a brilliant job either way. Many parents associate apprenticeships with manual jobs, but the fastest growing fields for apprenticeships are in technology and professional services. Some of the world’s best companies – including Facebook, WPP, Google and Mercedes-Benz – now recruit non-graduates. I’ve seen thousands of apprentices reach great heights through my start-up.

Getting half of all young people to university made sense when the commitment was made over 20 years ago. Back then, it was widely thought that more people going to university meant a more skilled workforce, plus a wider spread of opportunity. But since, we’ve seen a major disconnect between the content universities teach and the skills employers need, exacerbated by the pace of technological change.

The expansion of student numbers didn’t create the level playing field some thought it would. Almost half of those accepted on to top corporate graduate schemes went to private school, for example. Since the introduction of £9,000-plus tuition fees, one in five graduates would have been financially better off had they never gone to university, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

For years, apprenticeships were thought of as an inferior option, and schools struggled to point pupils in their direction. But their reputation has shot up; during the pandemic, our apprentices remained remarkably sticky in their jobs, while many of their peers were being laid off or furloughed. We now train as many apprentices from the wealthiest households as the poorest.