Megan Williams
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May, 10

Is university really worth it?

High fees, no job guarantee… Higher education is losing its lustre for a new class of high-fliers going straight from school to boardroom

By early September several of Miri Nicholls’ friends had visited Dunelm, a homeware shop, in Manchester and come away with such essentials as a duvet cover and Anglepoise lamp. Talk was all about halls; a new life was about to begin.

Nicholls was hard-working and academically able. She’d left Manchester High School for Girls, a top-flight private school, with an A* and two As at A level. She knew what she wanted to do: work in the fashion business.

University was the next step. Her mother, a journalist, had gone to Manchester University; her late father, a lawyer, had gone to University College London; her older sister to Nottingham University. It’s what everyone did.

But not Nicholls. “I just don’t know if it’s necessary,” she says. “At that point I’d already got a taste of the working world [a Saturday job in Debenhams], and as for the uni life, I thought, that’s for kids who’d never been to a nightclub before and never lived moderately independent lives.” Having grown up in a city, with a speedy metro link, she’d been going to nightclubs since the age of 16.

But university was the done thing. Everywhere she looked, she saw teachers talking about admissions, UCAS and personal statements. “I didn’t want to cause a big stir,” she says, “so I went with the flow. I submitted all the things I needed to without putting much thought, effort or time into it.” Nicholls was offered a place at Leeds University to read business management after her gap year.

And then her plans started to unravel. When her best friend pulled out of their trip to Laos and Thailand, Nicholls decided to follow the example of another good friend and do work experience abroad. She brainstormed family contacts with her mother and got in touch with a close family friend who had links with an export company in Shanghai.

By late September, barely two months after leaving school, Nicholls was on a flight to Shanghai with a plan to stay for six months. She lodged with a British woman who worked for Tesco China in a glamorous flat in a gated community in the modern financial district.

Nicholls spent three months with the export agency that dealt with fashion brands and retailers across the world and three months with the buying team for F&F, Tesco’s fashion line, which she arranged via her landlady. Nicholls could hardly believe it.

“China was just like heaven for me,” she says. “I loved everything about it. It was just the most amazing way to build my work ethic and my confidence and character. By the end of it, I had friends all over the world. It was the most unbelievable experience.”

By the time she landed back in Manchester the following March, her mind was made up. The very word “lecture” felt like a door closing. Nicholls announced that she would not be going to university.

“I was quite upset,” remembers her mother, Deborah. “Her late dad and I both went to university. It was the thing you did, but then she persuaded me. She said, ‘Look, Mum, I’ll spend the first year drinking and partying, probably not work very hard in the second year. Third year, I’ll probably get my head down.’ She said it would be a waste of time and of money that could be better spent.”

In 2012 Nicholls moved with her sister to London. She got an internship at Topshop – a coup because Topshop rarely took interns without degrees (it has since stopped offering any work experience that isn’t part of a degree course) – where she went on to become a buyer. This year she was headhunted as a brand manager for Pretty You London, a company that makes elegant slippers, a job which involves frequent travel to China, where she negotiates and secures deals.

Now 23, she earns about £30,000 a year, the same as her sister, who has a degree in business management and does a similar job for a stationery and giftware company. “Business is about personality, skill and technique, and they aren’t attributes that can be provided by a text book,” says Nicholls.

Even now, she remembers how radical the idea of not going to university was. “It went against the grain. People in school, my family, friends, all the people I knew had gone to university. You look back and think, ‘God, was I the only one?’ I wasn’t, but it did feel like that.”

In a landmark report published more than five decades ago, Lord Robbins, head of economics at the London School of Economics, set out to explain why he was calling for an immediate expansion of university education.

“If, as we believe, a highly educated population is essential to meet competitive pressures in the modern world, a much greater effort is necessary if we are to hold our own,” the report stated. Higher education, it argued, was the key to human betterment and prosperity – for the individual and the country.

The Robbins Report was published in 1963, a time when less than 5 per cent of young Britons – some 216,000 – went to university. The report pushed for a target of 560,000 (about 15 per cent) by 1980/81.

Today nearly 50 per cent of young people in the UK attend university. The Sixties expansion of the university world was further accelerated by Tony Blair in the late Nineties. “In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you will go,” he pronounced at the Labour Party’s annual conference in 1999. “So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.”

The push for universities has transformed the academic landscape. In the Seventies, prospective students had a choice of 40 or so universities; now there are more than 150. A few are new, such as the University of Cornwall and the University of the Highlands and Islands, but many are former technology colleges and polytechnics.

The message is that a degree is all-important – no longer just a pathway to opportunity for the talented few, but a prerequisite for many jobs in the modern economy. And the argument goes that if you go to university and get a degree, you will be rewarded with a better job, brighter career prospects and higher wages. (This is what educational economists call “the human capital” theory and it’s at the heart of higher education policy around the world.)

The push for university comes from government, employers, teachers and parents. It’s a system that sorts out life’s winners and losers and the justification for why a premium is placed on degrees from top-tier universities.

And because university now costs a lot more than it used to, with the near trebling of tuition fees in 2012 to £9,000 a year, the pressure on students to find a good job when they graduate is even more profound.

Yet, for some, the investment does not pay off. A third of graduates took jobs as cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers six months after leaving university, according to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). More than 60,000 students were in “nonprofessional” roles, working in areas such as administration and secretarial, service and caring industries and customer service. The data also showed that almost 16,730 graduates were out of work six months after leaving university – employment rates not helped by young people graduating into a labour market still hit by the recession.

“Being a graduate is not now a free pass to graduate employment,” Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, who left school at 16 to become a secretary, recently observed.

The other revelation is how much university has changed from the place it was a just generation ago.

“When I started teaching in the late Sixties, you very rarely had a teaching group above eight. By the time I left, it was not unusual to have a seminar group of 20. Today it could well be 25,” says Ted Tapper, emeritus professor of history at Sussex University (he retired in 2003) and co-author of Reshaping the University: the rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education, with David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy.

Seminars, Tapper adds, were also increasingly taught by graduate students rather than regular faculty staff. “They [students] got far less personal attention,” he says. “Overall, it became a less interesting and less demanding experience [for students]. They are paying more but what they’re getting is less than they used to in terms of the quality.”

“The key metric that Mum and Dad need to know and the kid needs to know, apart from feedback time and stuff like that, is what’s the size of the seminar group, and that is a metric the industry hides from you,” says Palfreyman.

In fact, one of the criteria by which a university’s reputation is measured has nothing to do with teaching. The Research Excellence Framework is a measure of universities’ academic work. The results determine how much research funding universities are granted – there’s £2 billion a year available – and this is used to determine institutions’ rankings in league tables.

“Research is all that matters for world-class branding, and because of that you’ve arguably distorted the balance of teaching and research in elite universities over the past 30 years,” says Palfreyman. “So don’t be surprised if the undergraduates are moaning that they don’t get much attention paid to them at a university that has a high research status.”

The higher education ombudsman has received more than 2,000 complaints from students this year over issues such as too little time with tutors, overcrowded lecture theatres and poor teaching. (In a bid to raise standards, the government recently announced that universities in England will be able to raise tuition fees above £9,000 if they can demonstrate high-quality teaching.)

The other consequence of “massification” – the growth of higher education to accommodate a broader market – is the entry requirements are not as stiff as they used to be. Less than half the entrants to universities from state schools in 2013/14 had three grade Cs or above at A level.

“There are some students getting in with as few as 160 UCAS points, the equivalent of three Es,” says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research. “If you’re an institution that is working hard to survive, you will pull in all the students you can and, given the highlighting of the widening access agenda, you can claim that you are broadening the boundaries of the people who are able to go to university.”

Alongside this, however, are market pressures. “Government policies have put universities into competition, so they’re having to market themselves, and that means they are paying particular attention to the league tables that many newspapers compile,” says Smithers. “And one of the dimensions that gets used in creating those indices is how many firsts and 2:1s the university awards [universities set and mark their own exams], so universities are reckoning they can move up the league table if they award more firsts than 2:1s. In fact, they’re all doing it, so it doesn’t make much difference to the league standing of the university, but it makes a lot of difference to the percentage of good degrees that are being awarded.”

The number of students attaining a first has doubled in the past decade, rising by 14 per cent in 12 months to a record of almost 80,000 last summer, according to figures released by the HESA.

“You can’t explain all of the increases with intelligence or hardworking students,” says Palfreyman. “There is something else going on that perhaps we shouldn’t be so pleased about.”

University education, Smithers concludes, has grown so big, “yet it’s kept to the shape of what it was when the people going to university were very highly selected and really wanted to learn and could be trusted to do it under their own steam. And that [model] hasn’t scaled up to 50 per cent of the population.”

“I feel sorry for the twentysomethings,” says Palfreyman, “They are Generation No Pension. They are Generation Rent. They are Generation Job Insecurity relative to me, and they are also Generation Student Fee Debt.” What about their degree? “They could well have been, putting it not very politely, conned.”

Natasha Cilvert’s routine is to get up at 6.30am and go to the gym. She then changes into smart office clothes, normally a dress or skirt and heels (except for “casual Fridays” when she is more likely to wear a pair of trousers) and catches the train from Loughton in Essex to the City of London, where she works in the mergers and acquisitions tax department of one of the country’s leading accountancy firms. Her role is to advise clients on potential acquisitions and disposals.

By contrast, most of her contemporaries from school have only just graduated.

Cilvert, 22, was offered a place at UCL to study physics after leaving Davenant Foundation School, a sixth-form college in Loughton, with two A*s and an A in maths, physics and economics. “I loved physics,” she says. “That was my favourite subject at school. So I just thought I’d read physics at university, graduate and get a job in finance.” A career in finance was always the long-term plan.

Cilvert was due to start university in 2012, the year tuition fees increased to £9,000 a year. And while a student loan isn’t like a mortgage debt, say, and more like a tax that kicks in once you start earning more than £17,335 (£17,495 next April), nevertheless the average student debt after three years at university is £44,000.

“I didn’t want to pay 9 per cent extra tax,” she says. “I didn’t want that hanging over my head. I thought I’d see what else was out there.”

She went on the internet and found Deloitte’s BrightStart scheme, a five-year programme for school leavers, which launched in 2010 and offers training in areas such as audit tax, corporate finance and consulting.

“People are beginning to realise university just isn’t for everybody,” says a spokesperson from Deloitte, one of four prestigious accountancy firms increasingly targeting 18-year-olds, considering them “hungrier” than graduates and likely to stay longer.

Deloitte recently doubled its intake of school leavers to 200 (in addition to 1,200 graduates). PricewaterhouseCoopers has tripled its recruitment of school leavers over the past five years to 160 (alongside 1,500 graduates). Graduate trainees at Deloitte qualify as chartered accountants in three years; the BrightStarts in five.

“Starting a professional job at 18 is pretty scary,” says Cilvert. “I was the only 18-year-old in my department.” She is in a team of 70. “Now I delegate work to people I would have been joining with if I’d graduated, so I am definitely still ahead of where I would have been. I’ve earned more money, I’ve got a lot more experience and I’ve been able to save and hopefully put down a deposit for a house in the next couple of years. That’s something that’s a long way off for other people my age.”

Cilvert now treats physics as a kind of hobby. “I read books on the Tube,” she says. “I’m a big fan of Brian Cox.”

Toby Lewis Thomas, 26, a photographer and creative director of Birch, a photography studio, is another example of someone for whom the student loan was pivotal.

The son of a single mother, who worked as a dinner lady, he grew up in a council house in Lymington, Hampshire. Severely dyslexic, he was accepted on to a one-year foundation course in art and design at the Arts University Bournemouth on the basis of an impressive portfolio (his only academic qualification is an AS level in photography). He did well enough to be offered a place on the BA honours photography course, but dropped out in his third year. The only good thing about university, he says, was the student loan.

“It’s amazing what £1,000 can do if you use it in the right way,” he says. “I just invested in equipment and giving myself a start that my mum wouldn’t have been able to give me.” With his £500 Canon 550D camera, he started making videos for bands. “I thought I needed to get a bit more professional at it, so I went to a friend who owned a consultancy and said, ‘I really need you to lend me £1,000 and when my student loan comes in, I’ll give it back to you.’ And that’s what we did.” Throughout his first and second year, Lewis Thomas supported himself with jobs in bars and pubs while developing a film and photography business.

“As I was going into my third year, we had to do a dissertation draft and I thought, ‘Why am I doing a dissertation draft? I am not going to do a good job. I am not going to get a good grade. It’s making me feel stressed and empty when, really, I’m succeeding at the subject I’m studying, but studying this course is making me feel like I’m failing.’ There was a lot of theory and history, which, for me, was irrelevant. They want you to fit a mould that’s academic.”

So he stopped going (he paid back his fees for the final year) and has been busy working ever since. He set up Birch last year, and has an office in east London. Clients include Royal Mail, Soho House group and Hillsong, the Pentecostal megachurch.

“I couldn’t have a better client list and not one of them has ever asked me for a resumé or even questioned what university I went to, or even cares,” he says. “They just care about the quality of the work and your people skills.”

Surely he must have learned some technical knowhow at university? “I didn’t, actually,” he replies. He says he mostly watched “how to” videos on YouTube.

What about the university experience? The value of university, after all, isn’t only financial.

Enlightenment, he points out, is unlikely to be achieved in student halls of residence. “You’ve got kids who’ve moved away from their families and can barely feed themselves and there’s a million personal things going on, with relationships and all the stresses of university.”

Ultimately, he believes, university offers “a lot of space for you to lead yourself into places that you don’t want to be in”.

This March, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, vice chancellor of Sheffield University, and Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of the University of Warwick, called for “elite” vocational training in the UK in which apprenticeships achieve the same status as high-quality university degrees.

Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has spearheaded apprentice training with engineering companies such as Rolls-Royce and has made a case for advanced apprenticeships to help young people go on to do the best jobs.

Perhaps no area has felt the dominance of university education more keenly than vocational training. “This is one of the awful things we get wrong in this country,” says Smithers. “We’ve always tended to value the academic above the vocational. And it means that people with excellent practical talents don’t get an opportunity to develop them. There have been numerous attempts to get practical education off the ground in schools and they’ve almost all foundered.”

The current hope for supporters of vocational training is David Cameron’s pledge to create 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. But it’s still not clear how they will be funded. “And if they turn out to be serving in a coffee bar, they will exist more in name than substance,” says Smithers.

Sophie Hart-Walsh, 28, had an expensive education at a top-ranking private school.

“I had absolutely no doubt that Sophie would go to university,” says her mother Carolyn, a writer. “I just assumed she’d go. It never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t.”

So when Sophie said no – the first in three generations not to go to university – despite getting two As and a D in her A levels, Carolyn was shocked.

“She just said, ‘It’s not for me. It’s going to be a waste of time and there’s nothing I really want to do enough to spend the next three years doing,’ ” says Carolyn.

“Once she’d made the decision, I thought, ‘I’m going to go with her. There is absolutely no way I can force her to go.’ I was also quite proud of her by then because most of her friends were going to university.” Sophie was the odd one out.

Her father, the writer John Walsh, is “intensely proud”, says Sophie, of having gone to Oxford University. “He really wanted me to go, but he didn’t try to change my mind. He probably assumed it was a whim.”

“It was really hard for Sophie,” says her mother. “All her friends departed, and she had a series of awful jobs,” including unpaid internships. “She worked and worked and says now she was very depressed, partly because everybody else had disappeared.” And then, three years later, she got work experience with a costume designer, who was working on a £132 million-budget film, at Pinewood Studios.

“I was booked for two weeks, stayed for nearly three months and absolutely loved it,” says Sophie. She’s since worked on St Trinian’s, Pirates of the Caribbean and My Week With Marilyn and has just been promoted to assistant costume designer on The Mummy, due to be released in 2017.

“People are always surprised I didn’t have any formal training,” says Sophie. “It’s one of those jobs that as long as you say yes to things, you learn on the hoof.” She has also launched a clothing label with a friend, Koro Kimono (korokimono.com).

“I’ve never been asked if I have a degree,” she says. There was a regret. “I did think I would never learn how to write essays properly, do proper research and structure long pieces. I remember thinking I should know that, but I don’t think I need to know that now.”

So, is university worth it? I ask Peter Cappelli, a US-based professor of management and author of Will College Pay Off?. “If worth it means will it pay off financially, I think the answer to that is a big ‘It depends’. We know for a lot of people it doesn’t pay off. You have to be a very careful shopper.” His bête noire in the States is universities that encourage students to take out expensive loans to read degree subjects that sound like passports to guaranteed employment – hospital records administration, international tourism management, pharmaceutical marketing. “It’s not clear that employers actually care that much about those degrees,” he says. “And it’s an enormous risk because, if you don’t get a job in pharmaceutical marketing, say, because pharmacy companies aren’t hiring the year you graduate, what are you going to do?”

Smithers agrees: “If you end up in a university because you couldn’t get into the course of your choice and the university has a bright marketing prospectus and you go there and find the staff are pretty moderate and there aren’t the resources for learning, then you are essentially wasting money and bits of your life.”

The problem is how to be a discerning “shopper” if you don’t know what you’re buying. Universities are not compelled to publish data on graduates’ careers, for example. And many experts are circumspect about what is published. “Employability data is incredibly tainted, because it’s just a snapshot of what’s happened to the kid six months on,” says Palfreyman.

This is set to change as a group of researchers have investigated the earnings of graduates over the first decade or so of their working lives, with variations in earnings by institution type and subject. The results of the Nuffield Foundation-funded project will be published before Christmas.

“We know already that university, on average, is worth it, but where you go and, particularly, what subject you study will make a difference to your earnings,” says Anna Vignoles, professor of education at Cambridge University, and one of the researchers involved in the study.

This generation of ambitious, talented 18-year-olds may be thinking hard about whether a university on their CV is worth it. Tough as it might be for these young people to go against the masses and not graduate, Cappelli believes it’s harder for their parents. “They’re the ones who have to explain to their friends what’s going on. ‘What? Your kid couldn’t get into university? You don’t have the money to send them? You’re a failure as a parent’ – all that kind of stuff.”

The non graduates
Who says you need a degree?

Tinie Tempah Despite leaving school with ten GCSEs and three A levels, decided to pursue a career in music instead. Now rapper, fashion icon and record label owner.
Carey Mulligan Bafta-winning actress who pursued her acting career straight after her A levels rather than going to university or drama school.
Mary Portas Offered a place at Rada, but opted for a career in fashion instead. After stints at John Lewis, Harrods and Topshop, she joined Harvey Nichols, then went on to TV fame.
Zoella Best known for her YouTube fashion and beauty channel. She gained three A grades at A level, but decided against university, choosing an apprenticeship with a design company instead.
Pete Cashmore CEO of the blog Mashable, which he founded aged 19 in Aberdeen. Featured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.
Jeremy Corbyn Left school with two E-grade A levels. Enrolled on a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic, but dropped out after rowing with his tutors.
David Karp Founder of Tumblr, which he sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. Karp dropped out of Bronx Science high school at 14, opting for home schooling while focusing on coding skills.
Heston Blumenthal Left school with six O levels and an A level in art. Took jobs from photocopier salesman to debt collector, while teaching himself classical cooking techniques.
Simon Cowell Cowell left school at 16 and worked his way up in the music business from the mailroom. Now worth an estimated £300 million.
Ellie Goulding The singer studied drama at the University of Kent before being spotted in a talent contest and leaving after two years.
Sir Richard Branson A severe dyslexic, the business tycoon left school at 16 with three O levels. At 20, Branson started Virgin as a mail-order record retailer.
Jamie Oliver Oliver left school at 16. He enrolled at Westminster Kingsway Further Education College, before getting a job as a pastry chef.

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