You’ll never get into a good university if you carry on like this.’ A haunting threat from school days past, but since the coalition trebled university tuition fees in 2010, the question is — do you really want to? The decision to increase fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year was met with anger from students and parents alike. Riots broke out with police arresting 153 people at a demo in Trafalgar Square. Widespread fury was particularly directed at Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had pledged to vote against any increase in fees — so much so that he was forced to broadcast a public apology: ‘We made a pledge, we did not stick to it, and for that I am sorry… it was a pledge made with the best of intentions’, he said.
Tuition fees were first introduced by Labour in 1998, with undergraduates obliged to pay £1,000 per year. This rose to £3,000 in 2004 under the Higher Education Act. But it was the trebling of this sum that resulted in a seismic shift in attitudes: the monetary value of an undergraduate degree was now being called into question. And finances were not the only considerations; the educational and lifetime value of an undergraduate degree was also challenged.
I completed my degree before the cap on fees was lifted. In spite of this (and due to taking both the tuition and accommodation loans) I now owe the government thousands upon thousands of pounds. Under the previous system, the average student debt was estimated £24,754. The situation is far worse for today’s graduates, whose average debt is an eye-watering £44,035. Furthermore, a recent study predicted that three-quarters of today’s students will still be indebted into their fifties. So it is worth it? Do the fees reflect the educational experience that today’s universities provide? Or is an undergraduate degree a waste of time and money?
There are those who vehemently argue that a degree does not have enough value in the employment market to justify its cost. Katya, a journalist, is one such example. She eschewed university, in favour of ‘making coffees in offices and learning about the businesses in which I’m making the coffees and making friends with the people I’m pouring the coffee for.’ Asked if she regrets not having a degree, she says no without hesitation. ‘I think in some ways it’s worked in my favour. It makes me stand out. At interviews I’m always asked why I didn’t go to university and I can give a ten-minute lecture about why it’s more important to pour coffee.’
And the finances? ‘If I thought it was silly to study animal psychology at the University of Wolverhampton for £3,000 a year, then doing so for £9,000 a year is completely ludicrous.’ There is evidence to support her argument. A degree no longer offers any guarantee of employment, particularly in a job related to your subject (unless you study medicine or law). Last summer the Higher Education Statistics Agency published a report that found that a third of graduates worked in ‘non-professional’ jobs that do not require a degree. And more than 18,000 graduates were unemployed six months after completing university.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has spoken out sympathising with today’s graduates. ‘For many university leavers, the prospect of finding a job that matches their talents is gloomy. Despite paying huge amounts to get a higher education, many are being forced to take on lower-skilled jobs… the government’s economic plan is failing to solve this career gridlock.’
However, even indebted graduates believe that university still has its merits. Alex, a theology graduate from York University who now works for a London publishing house, says: ‘A degree isn’t a pre-requisite for my industry but I wouldn’t be without it. In publishing an innate curiosity about the world really helps. I think studying a humanities subject nurtured that hugely. I use the skills my degree taught me — analysis, evaluation, breaking down information, responding thoughtfully — every day.’ However, Alex graduated before the fees increased. Would he feel the same about an arts degree if it cost him £9,000 a year? ‘I’d have been torn,’ he admits.
Whether or not to go to university is a dilemma that almost every A-level student faces. Given the major financial burdens that beckon and the bleak employment market, it is likely that more and more young people will reject the path of Ucas and instead enjoy the daunting luxury of finding their own way.
This piece first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Spectator Schools.