For the past few decades, teachers at state schools up and down the country have been pushing for their brightest pupils to attend university, telling them that it's the passport to a successful life. A place where upon graduation, with diploma still in hand, they can skip merrily into the sunset along a yellow brick road paved with opportunities a-plenty for the rest of their lives.
I know this, because I was fed a similar rhetoric myself. I attended my local state school, and because I achieved decent grades I was always encouraged to attend university. I was told by my teachers that after university, all of the top companies from different industries would be lined up just begging for me to work for them. They made it sound as if I would be practically beating them off with a stick. It didn't take long for me to learn that this couldn't be further from the truth. But hey, I could write a whole other article about how difficult it is to actually get onto a decent graduate scheme straight out of university.
This past month, I returned to my hometown of Cwmbran after having completed by degree at the University of Bristol. As a town that's situated in the heart of the South Wales valleys, you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that it is by and large a very working class area. As one of the resident graduates in the area, I get a lot of neighbours and relatives with kids who will ask me all about university. They'll ask about any tips or recommendations that I might have for their sons or daughters. Insights for their personal statements. All of that kind of stuff.
Whenever I converse with them, however, the one thought that's always niggling at the back of my mind is whether I should say to them that university may not necessarily be the right choice for their son or daughter. Not because I don't think that they're capable of dealing with the academic rigours of a degree, but because I'm not sure whether university has much to offer working class people in this country anymore.
For the remainder of this article, I'm going to be outlining some of the reasons why in some circumstances, working class students could be advised to avoid university altogether.
1.) University is too expensive for most working class families
The first reason why working class students should consider avoiding university altogether, is because it is bloody expensive. Tuition fees in the UK are already sky-high in comparison to many of the other European countries. Under a Tory government, there's a strong chance that tuition fees will get even higher by the end of the next parliament as well.
Fortunately, the Welsh government subsidises all tuition fees above £3000 every year, which goes some way towards alleviating the pressure that is placed on the working class students of wales. However, our English counterparts are not fortunate enough to enjoy this same privilege, and so they suffer the full brunt of these financial burdens with little support from the government. In recent weeks, we learnt that the government has scrapped maintenance grants and replaced it with a more sizeable maintenance loan system as well, meaning that the levels of debt that students will leave university with has risen sharply once again.
Critics would argue that the tuition fees aren't a big deal, since they operate less as a loan and more as a 'graduate tax' that gets wiped clean after 30 years if it's not paid back anyway. But at a time when the cost of living and house prices are forever rising while wages are remaining fairly stagnant, a 9% tax on earnings makes a big difference, assuming that they'll even manage to secure a job that pays over £21k in the first place. They'll never be able to secure a mortgage if 40% of their wages are being eroded by income tax, national insurance contributions AND a graduate tax.
Critics must also remember that the cost of university is not just limited to tuition fees either. During university, there are many expenses that come with a university education. For starters, the typical student can expect to spend anywhere between £3-6k per year on rent. This factor alone leaves many working class students out of pocket, with even the most generous of bursaries struggling to cover these costs.
Then factor in the costs of food, books and the gazillion other minor expenses that come with living away from home for three years. Many working class students won't have the luxury of being able to depend on the assistance of their parents for any financial shortfalls either, since they will be having some of their own financial difficulties to contend with. University is simply too expensive to be a realistic option for some working class students, as they can't afford many of the enormous costs that are associated with it.
2.) Social Mobility (or lack thereof)
Universities are supposed to be the great facilitators of social mobility. And once upon a time, when only one in 10 people attended university, they performed this function extremely well. Bright working class students could head to university and obtain their degree, and gain access to all of the employment opportunities that their middle-class counterparts enjoyed.
But this stands in stark contrast to the situation today. Just recently, Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at UCL, said that your family background and parents' wealth are greater indicators of future success than your degree. The issue is further compounded by the fact that around 40% of people attend university nowadays. The job market is simply saturated with graduates. This has the inevitable effect of making degrees less valuable in and of themselves in the job market, despite their overly inflated price tag.
Society is clearly failing those people who wish to improve their lives, and it's making its working class students pay the price by continuing to push for them to attend university. The sad truth is that they're fighting a losing battle against those who are richer and have greater cultural capital than themselves.
3.) They Lack the Contacts
The graduate job market is fierce right now. Employers are receiving 39 applications for every one graduate job vacancy. Of course, the best way to boost your chances of securing employment is to have contacts who can give you a helping hand. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 40% of jobs are acquired this way.
This clearly disadvantages working class students. They will often lack the kind of contacts that would be able to assist them in securing any kind of high-skilled, high-paying graduate job. While privately-schooled graduates might be given a break by having an uncle who is the head of HR at some big financial firm to fall back on, working class students coming out of university would have to find their own way in life without any breaks or shortcuts, which is all the more difficult when graduate jobs are so hard to come by.
4.) Degrees are Becoming Increasingly Irrelevant in 2015 for EVERYONE
Let's make one thing abundantly clear. Knowledge is meaningless in 2015. Any knowledge worth knowing in the world can be acquired within a matter of seconds through a quick google search on your phone. It beggars belief that undergraduates are still being assessed on their ability to memorise everything that's already in the textbook or article.
The best thing that young people can possess is skills. This is what employers are desperately crying out for. What good is an employee at a marketing company that has no real skills, but can offer fantastic insights into the extent that the law of charities in England and Wales provide a coherent approach to determining public benefit in the context of the advancement of education? There's a critical shortage of skills in this country, which explains why our country's productivity levels are so poor, yet the establishment is still insisting that shovelling more young people into a university system that fills their minds with relatively useless knowledge for everyday life is the answer to the country's problems. .
I'm not going down the "learn a trade" route either. I'm not saying that we should go 20 years back in time and tell all working class kids that they're confined to becoming plumbers or builders. No. Instead, working class students should be encouraged to be at the forefront of skills in emerging and future industries. For instance, there's a whole digital industry which is only going to get bigger in the next few years. Why not encourage young working class people to become graphic designers or web developers? The industry is crying out for more web developers. Why aren't talented young working class kids being encouraged to fulfil these roles instead of going to university to study the criminology degree where the supply of criminology graduates far exceeds the relatively small demand for criminologists?
Our entire education system requires dramatic reform. It's simply not fit for purpose anymore. It's hitting working class students the hardest, and will continue to do so as more and more of the old-school "traditional" jobs disappear into oblivion. It's not unrealistic to think that within the next decade, self-service checkouts will be the only way to purchase goods at supermarkets, and all factory jobs will be performed by robots.
This all begs the question, should working class students be advised to avoid university altogether? Probably not.
There are still plenty of benefits to be derived from a university education that's been carefully thought about. But it's time to stop telling working class kids to blindly aspire towards going to university for the sake of it, only to come out with thousands of pounds worth of debt and with no skills that will enable them to stand out in an increasingly saturated and competitive market where who you know is only going to become more important, and where the odds will perpetually be stacked against them.
Some people might perceive this very critical stance of mine to be somewhat hypocritical, considering that I have just written a book on how to choose a university. However, one of the very first points that I made in the book was that the decision to attend university should not be taken lightly, and that unless you have a clear career in mind or have an incredible passion for a particular subject, you should think twice about heading to university.
It just so happens that this advice is particularly important for those students who come from working class backgrounds like myself. There is little to regret for someone who comes from a wealthy and privileged background, as money will not be an issue and daddy will connect them with one of his pals if all else fails anyway. But if working class students aren't being careful to make the right decision about university, they face the prospect of ending up poor, indebted and most of all confused as to how they did everything "right" that they were ever told to do by their parents and teachers, only to be left in the cold in a fierce and crowded graduate job market.