There are many articles in the media claiming that some degrees are a waste of time and money leaving students with heavy debts but no job. Celebrities line up to boast that they achieved their fame and fortune without going to university. Reports are published suggesting that the Government's figures for the "graduate premium" - the additional earnings gained by graduates over their lifetime - is an average that masks significant variation.
It is true that earnings vary depending on career (bankers earn more than nurses) and region (wages are higher in London than in Teesside). There are also some freelance graduate careers, for example in the creative arts, that require you to take on an additional non-graduate job between contracts. People have different motivations - some would rather make art than money or are most fulfilled by doing a job that clearly benefits society. The important thing is to choose a degree with your eyes open.
In the past, only the social elite went to university - and had wealth and connections to help them succeed. Now that many more people go there is more competition for the best graduate jobs. This is not a good reason to give up on the starting line, particularly if you don't have other advantages. The facts are that even now 80% graduates are working in a graduate job three years after graduating and, even in the recent difficult labour markets, graduates are 17% more likely to be employed than non-graduates. There are many exciting professions for which a degree is an essential entry requirement and many more where even if a degree isn't required, employers are more likely to look favourably at graduates.
There is a reason for this. Even if an employer doesn't require a particular body of knowledge, she is likely to want someone who can think critically and analytically and has personal resilience, good communication skills and has the ability to keep learning - all general skills that universities develop. These skills are particularly important in these days when fewer people will have a job for life and will have to learn how to succeed in many different careers during their lifetime.
It does mean, however, that the decision of what and where to study is more important than ever - and not everyone providing advice is impartial.
The Department for Education collects data on how many pupils a school sends to Russell Group universities - providing a strong incentive for schools to push students towards these courses regardless of whether they are right for that person. These are research-intensive universities with high entry tariffs that offer academic courses in traditional subjects. This, of course, makes them exactly the right kind of universities for some students.
Other students, however, want to study courses that prepare them for technical and professional careers. For example, in architecture, fashion design, film animation or motor sport. According to the recent UCAS applicant survey, 41% of students who didn't apply to a higher tariff university didn't do so because those universities didn't offer the course they wanted.
It may be important to students that their course includes work placements (86% of the applicants through UCAS wanted this) or that it is accredited by a relevant professional body. They may prefer to learn experientially by solving real-world problems in groups. They might need a university that recognises that they don't come with huge amounts of social capital and provides realistic opportunities for them to build this. For students like these, institutions in University Alliance - that specialise in high quality professional and technical education - might be a better option.
For students who already know what job they want to do, a degree apprenticeship may present the best of both worlds. The number of places and range of subjects covered is still quite small compared to a standard undergraduate degree but, if you are lucky, it can present an opportunity to learn while you earn. At the end of five years, you will have no student debt and a respected qualification that is highly relevant to your job.
It is therefore very important that students think through what they want and how best to achieve it in their circumstances. After all, they will be the ones paying off the student loans and working - or not - in the career of their dreams. University is a transforming experience.
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