Over the past few months, my eldest daughter has made a few comments about going to university. Despite only being in Year 7, she’s clearly picked up on the fact that older teenagers often fly the family home and go off to this mysterious place called “university” to study for three years.
I don’t mind admitting mention of university makes me a little uncomfortable. Not, you understand, that I’m opposed to universities or the many wonderful academics who work in them. I wouldn’t stand in my daughter’s way if that’s what she wanted to do. Nonetheless, I find myself questioning why university remains the default option for many school leavers and I would certainly sit down with her and ensure all other options were given serious consideration.
For my generation, studying at university for three years was a rite of passage, expected almost. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in 1999 that he wanted 50% of all young people to go into higher education. It seemed like a sensible idea and that target was eventually surpassed, but it ultimately led to less choice in the education system. Polytechnics disappeared, universities started issuing qualifications on behalf of further education colleges and three-year long degrees becoming the “go-to” qualification. Added to that, mass degree-level education has had a highly questionable impact on graduate recruitment.
Looking at the world two decades after I left higher education through the battle-hardened, cynical lens of fatherhood, I can’t help feeling the higher education system, particularly the dominance of universities, needs to be politely challenged.
Let me make clear I am not anti-university study. For some people it is the correct path, but I do struggle with schools steering such large numbers of young people in that direction. It has made universities incredibly powerful and the introduction of tuition fees has added an unhelpful, commercial element that means universities don’t seem to be asking too many questions about who they’re welcoming through their doors (and maybe offering courses that are popular as opposed to turning our graduates qualified in subjects the world needs?).
In the next few years, this is going to become very personal. My kids will ask what they should do after their school years. I know there are superb courses of study with wonderfully dedicated tutors. I know there are great universities and some people have the most amazing experiences at university and that it can present opportunities for personal growth. Even so, I do find myself asking a few questions about university education.
Those without degrees don’t seem to be at a disadvantage
If I look at my peers, those with degrees haven’t achieved any more professionally than those who never went to university (Bonus points to one particular friend – you know who you are – who studied for three years but was never awarded his degree because of an outstanding fine at the university library).
I’d have to include myself in the “not a graduate” group. I studied a vocational qualification as a mature student, a “degree equivalent” focused on working in the media. That qualification, which is sadly no longer available, has served me supremely well, much better than those who have the much-derided media studies degree. There is nothing wrong with technical, vocational qualifications. Yes, in case you are wondering, I concede that my own experiences have influenced my views of university degrees.
Do students specialise too young?
It strikes me that a lot of pressure is put on 18-year-olds to specialise at such a young age (a criticism I’d make of A-Levels as well, truth be told). That’s great if you have a passion for medicine or physics. University is absolutely the way forward for such individuals.
That said, how many people who go to university actually end up working in their chosen field of study? There are various generic, transferable life skills that you pick up as graduate, but is university the only route to learn these skills? Is it worth three years of study and the colossal financial debt it entails?
If I think about my own past, I narrowly avoided making a massive mistake after completing my A-levels. I had been accepted on to a four-year art restoration degree at a university in the Midlands. At the last minute I decided not to go, causing a massive ruckus with my mum and stepdad, the biggest falling out we’ve ever had.
Despite the huge upset it caused, it was the correct decision. Such a degree would have qualified me to repair antique art pieces in museums and little else. Now I love a museum and I am very partial to antiques, but I know the limit of my DIY skills. The idea of me handling irreplaceable museum pieces is laughable. I’d probably have graduated with a third and never repaired a single museum exhibit.
Can the personal debt be justified?
I was fortunate. When I eventually ventured into higher education, I snuck in just before tuition fees were introduced. I look at what students pay now, and it is simply eye-watering. Young adults are leaving university with debts of about £60,000.
The response I’ve heard more than once to the debt argument is: “Yes, but you pay it back over decades and only if you earn so much.”
I find this a very unconvincing argument. Debt is debt is debt. You may get a degree but the personal debt that graduates build up is phenomenal, especially at such a young age when many people want to be focused on the next big milestone: Saving a deposit to buy a first property.
Graduating with such high debt is just a part of the problem. With so many graduates coming out of university, it’s created a system where employers can be exceptionally selective and some exploit the situation. I’ve known young graduates work for a year or so in either unpaid or poorly paid internships (criminal, but that’s another story), before getting an entry-level job. Graduates can end up in a cycle of low paying jobs for a few years precisely because they are graduates and that isn’t fair.
Why do the Brits kick their kids out the door at 18?
Buckle up because I’m about to go into full-on dad mode and I make no apology for sounding overprotective. My question: How many 18-year-olds are mature enough to leave home?
These teenagers aren’t simply leaving home. They’re usually moving into high-density housing with complete strangers hundreds of miles from family and established friendship groups. Oh, yeah, and they’re exposed to a culture that encourages hard drinking with plenty of opportunities for sexual experimentation and drug taking.
I’m not judging, young people will do what young people do, but they’re crashing into independent living without the support and help trusted adults could provide. I question the level of emotional and mental health support universities provide young adults living away from home for the first time. My impression is that pastoral care is nowhere near good enough. When I think what I was like at the age of 18, I find that quite worrying.
This is also a peculiarly British thing. Most other nations have different approaches to university education with students frequently starting their studies in their early twenties, giving them that bit more life experience.
What to advise my own children?
I see signs that change is afoot. Apprenticeships seem to be more popular. A family member of mine involved in recruitment said his organisation recruits both graduates and apprentices each year and the apprentices are often “brilliant” with a superb work ethic (interestingly, he speaks much more highly of the apprentices than the graduates). Some modern apprenticeships are combined with study so you get a bit of everything.
The introduction of T-Levels is another sign of change. It’s a further option for youngsters and one that doesn’t tie them to the university route.
In the shadow of COVID-19, many universities are preparing to make more courses available for remote study. This would open up university to a whole raft of diverse students and remove some of the pressure to go to university at such a tender age. This can only be a good thing.
Even so, are there enough options to rival university degrees? T-Levels were only introduced last year and it’s taken several years for apprenticeships to get the recognition they deserve. Why don’t we hear more about the TechBac or the Higher National Diploma?
As my own children near the age where we’re going to have to seriously think about these things, I honestly don’t know what I will advise them. One thing is guaranteed: I’ll ensure they consider all options and don’t get swept up in the tide thinking university is the only possibility.