Is University the Right Path for You?
July 4, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
As thousands of young people complete further education this summer, how prepared are they for the decisions that lie ahead?
With rising tuition fees resulting in spiralling student debts, is it still worth going to university? As youth unemployment now tops one million and long term youth unemployment has increased by over 800% since 2000, even if young people are prepared to take on the debt from a university education, will there be a job for them after university?
With so much uncertainty facing young people, it’s no surprise that a survey by national training provider Lifetime, published in June 2012, revealed that half of 17- to18-year-olds currently in full time education feel anxious and afraid about the future and finding a job.
The same survey also revealed that 56% of young people surveyed felt they did not receive adequate careers advice at school or college to help them make informed decisions about their future.
The Fresh Outlook talked to young people and experts to test the level of understanding of the range of options available to school leavers today and how the problems facing young people shape the decisions they make.
Will Leyland, age 17 from Cheshire, has already attended a ‘Higher Education Evening’ at his sixth form, where a range of options including university, apprenticeships and gap years were presented. Despite being informed of a variety of paths, Will still detects a bias towards the university option from many teachers: “In this school probably the majority of the teachers would favour going to university because it’s the usual thing to do.”
“We know what our options are, but sometimes you have to ask to find out about the other options. There’s a tiny bit of reluctance to offer other things I would say.” explains Will.
Will’s schoolmate, Max Meakin, also 17, agrees, adding that his sixth form “leans more towards universities I would say.”
A quick search on social networking site Twitter, suggests this bias towards universities exists in many sixth forms around the country: “Love how my teacher just ignores me because I don’t want to go to uni.” says one user, @natkat_oxo.
“Don’t even want to go to uni but yet forced to write a personal statement! What a joke!” concurs another user @catkirkmanox.
With so many other options available to young people, why does the university route still take centre stage?
The Fresh Outlook spoke to www.notgoingtouni.co.uk, an advisory web site launched in 2008 with the aim of showing school leavers the range of opportunities that exist outside of the traditional university approach such as apprenticeships, sponsored degrees, diplomas, gap years, distance learning and jobs.
Spokesman and author of the ‘notgoingtouni’ Guide to Not Going to Uni, Andrew Shanahan, said: “As you’ve probably found from talking to people, the university route is pushed over and above all the other routes, without any shadow of a doubt…We are confronted with a generation of school leavers and college leavers who are effectively still being presented with one main option. Recent research by City and Guilds found that 75% of school leavers had been informed, or knew about the degree route and had got information about that. And 49% had been told about apprenticeships.”
Andrew and the ‘notgoingtouni’ team are not anti-university and acknowledge that for many, this may still be the best option for them, however, the key point is: “It absolutely doesn’t hurt people who are just about to make a big decision about what to do with their lives to have all the information presented to them.”
Andrew goes on to explain just some of the underrepresented options available to school leavers, such as a gap year, which he prefers to call a ‘Research and Development Year’.
Traditionally, gap years can be frowned upon by teachers and parents and seen as an excuse to muck around for a year, but as Andrew explains: “It is about you developing personally and professionally, and research should be the other vital part of that year, where you go and you discover what it is you want to do for the rest of your life. It gives you that valuable time to think.”
Next up, apprenticeships, which student Max thinks “could actually even be better than going to university in some ways because you’re more likely to get a job at the end of it, potentially with the people you get the apprenticeship with.”
There are other advantages to apprenticeships and work based vocational qualifications too, as our ‘notgoingtouni’ adviser explains: “These opportunities are so exciting” says Andrew. “In many cases they won’t cost you anything to do and it lots of other cases they will actually pay you.”
Despite not getting as much attention as the traditional university route, the number of apprenticeships available in the UK has quadrupled in the four years to 2011. The government invested £1bn in 2011 in England alone to create more than 450,000 apprenticeships, 63% more than in 2010.
Apprenticeships and work based training programmes are available with a host of household names, from Tesco to Santander, Aviva to Hilton Hotels, representing a genuine and credible career path.
The advantage of an apprenticeship is the opportunity to gain practical work experience alongside recognised qualifications, which can often be converted into a degree in the future with a little more study: “So why not start with an apprenticeship and if you find that you want greater academic rigour, after you’ve done it and extracted all the employability benefits… then there is that option.” encourages Andrew.
In spite of the many options available to school leavers, it seems the appetite for university is still as strong as ever. Both the students we spoke to plan to go to university and despite a slight dip in applicants this year compared to last year, figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) in January 2012 show that over half a million young people will start university this September.
The UK Graduate Careers Survey 2012 found that the average debt for those graduating in 2012 will be £19,400, although many sources speculate the true figure is much higher. Official estimates from the department for Business, Innovation and Skills put this figure as high as £40,000 by 2013 due to mounting tuition fees. So is university worth getting into all that debt?
“Yes!” says student Max Meakin, “I think the benefits of going to university outweigh the debt.” His classmate Will agrees, as he believes: “Uni gives you a higher chance of getting into the jobs that you want afterwards.”
But what many students don’t know is that it’s actually possible to get a degree, without getting in to any debt.
Andrew explains: “There are people who go off to university and they don’t know what sponsored degrees are, they don’t know what distance learning can do for them and they don’t know about studying abroad and…there are three options that could potentially get you a degree for free and they don’t know about them.”
University undeniably represents a great path for many people, bringing educational and social benefits, but the key message is: do your research; it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
If you are going to university, it’s also important to make it count. New statistics from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) show there are 83 applicants on average for every graduate job. With that level of competition, how can you make your university education worth every penny?
The Fresh Outlook spoke to recruitment expert and career coach Aimee Bateman, founder of careercake.tv to get some practical advice about how to stand out from the crowd at the end of your degree course: “Graduates need to up their game a lot more now with the increasing numbers of people going to university and the decline in the job market.” says Aimee.
“Young people need to get as much experience as possible from the day they start their first year at university. They have three years to make themselves attractive to as many companies as possible. I’d recommend volunteering while studying, to gain experience; attending 100% of all lectures can also become a unique selling point. If I saw those things on a graduate’s CV, I would be impressed and it is the people who have that attitude that get hired first.”
But if you’re one of the 50% of young people who do feel uncertain about the next step, or feel you haven’t received sufficient advice to make an informed decision, what should you do?
The first thing to do, advises Andrew, is to recognise that this “is an incredibly positive point…because there are so many options out there and there are so many different paths that you can take”
There’s lots of excellent advice available on the internet, a quick search will reveal help both via the government resource direct.gov and a host of large and small careers web sites.
But the onus is on you to ask the important questions about your future and “equip yourself with that information; go out and find out about the different alternative paths. Find out about the alternatives to university, find out about the different ways of getting a degree” says Andrew “and then you can start to see why this is such an exciting point in your life.”
More advice for school leavers can be found at: direct.gov.uk, notgoingtouni.co.uk and careercake.tv.
By Sarah Harper
[Image courtesy of Jack Keene]