Until very recently, university was becoming a staple part of a young person's career in education. University entry levels for the academic year of 2011-12 reached 49% across the UK - 60,000 more students than were entering uni in 2006. With figures this high, it's no surprise that the graduate job market is so highly competitive.
A lot has changed in higher education since 2011, most noticeably the cost. Prior to the uncapping of tuition fees, the average student debt was £26,100 - an amount already deemed to be a lot of money for a graduate yet to begin their career. Since the rise in tuition fees, that average debt has now climbed to nearly £45,000. It's no wonder that school leavers are more cautious in their decision making, being sure to research the benefits of a degree as well as exploring other potential routes into their desired career path.
While there will always be industries that require one or more degrees to break into, not every line of work is the same. The IT industry is a highly technical sector and needs smart and passionate people who have skills that are taught over a long period of time - but that doesn't mean that a degree is mandatory. In fact, in some areas of IT we're witnessing a complete levelling between graduates and non-graduates, meaning that a computing degree offers no direct benefit to many employers.
Web and Software Development
The world of IT development is experiencing a major skills shortage across the UK and EU, meaning that there are more jobs than there are trained developers to fill them. It would be a waste to screen people out for a role based on an exam result, especially in an area that's so dependent on creativity and individual talent. Employers want to see that someone can code or design well, so it's a lot more important for jobseekers to work on a personal portfolio and build up demonstrable experience.
Some people call into question the relevancy and benefits of a Computer Science degree for someone who wishes to enter the practical world of IT development. Due to the ever-evolving nature of the web and its technologies, university courses are often several years behind the best practices of the industry and are better suited to a more theoretical understanding of computing in general. Private coding courses and bootcamps have sprung up to fill the space that traditional education leaves and usually involve intense periods of practical learning with big payoffs in the form of immediate entry-level jobs.
IT Support and Networking
IT support is at another end of the spectrum to development in terms of the work it involves and the people it attracts, however they're similar in that they both offer quick and easy routes into a rewarding career (certainly faster than 3-4 years spent studying before even beginning work). Again, private courses are available that allow people of all ages to quickly gain a number of industry-standard certifications from companies like Microsoft and CompTIA before moving straight into an entry-level job and working their way up.
A popular route that I've yet to mention but is often described as a direct alternative to university, are government-funded apprenticeship programmes. They've fast become popular in almost all industries as a way to begin learning on the job rather than in the classroom, so for that reason they're perfect for a career path in IT infrastructure or development, where practice makes perfect.
With GCSE and A-Level results fresh in the hands of thousands of young people in the UK this week, it's important for students and their parents to be aware of the wide spectrum of available options. University will rightly continue to be a place for generations to continue their education, but it's naive to think of it as a 'one stop shop' for getting onto the career ladder. With varied and more readily accessible advice, we'll hopefully see more diversity in the young workforce leaving school and college.
As the founder and CEO of Just IT Training, Simon Perriton has over 13 years of experience helping young people to get their first IT jobs by providing expert training and advice. Follow Simon on twitter at @SPerriton or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org