University: Is it worth it?

Published by Stephen Caswell on

With A-Level results released, the focus for young people across the country turns to a simple question: what’s next?

Most will already be set to head off to university or be frantically applying for a place through clearing, but many will be making their way straight into the working world. With so many people getting a degree these days, it’s easy to see it as less of the prestigious qualification it was, but more a rite of passage for young adults. Combined with the ever-present worry of student debt and the numerous alternatives for potential students, it’s worth asking if university is really worth it?

Transferable Skills

Daniel Morris, founder of retailer The Morris Fyfe Agency and former MD of fashion brand Paul’s Boutique explains that most roles do not need a degree but having one is a sign that employees have useful skills.

“Recruits who stand out are those who can demonstrate intellectual curiosity and breadth of knowledge. A degree, though not necessarily essential for all roles, is normally a very good indication that a candidate possesses these qualities in abundance.”

He adds: “Transferable skills developed during a degree are important, but so too are the more technical and business-specific skills that more specialist degrees help to develop. For example, I know that someone who has done a degree in fashion management and marketing will bring both a degree of technical understanding to the table together with commercial and business insight – a combination that can otherwise be quite hard to find.”

Francesca di Tano, head of talent acquisition at Explore Learning – a well regarded tuition service for children – says graduates who have developed social skills at university form the backbone of their workforce.

“At university you learn how to work with others and present in front of people which is a huge asset to us at Explore as you’re constantly speaking in front of a crowd of children.”

It’s not entirely degree focused though, “We wouldn’t say that university is the be all and end all and we also offer a route into the assistant director role for people without a degree. This opportunity gives talented members of our tutor teams that haven’t been to university the opportunity to join our management teams.”

So far, it seems as though employers tend to appreciate the transferable skills learned at university over the degree itself. Obviously, there are some careers that require a degree. Anything involving medicine requires years of study, while certain industries like catering and the media prefer on-site training, but on the whole, it appears that a less specialised degree can help you land a job anyway.

Follow your passion

Paula Clark, careers and employability adviser at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham disagrees saying people’s degrees should reflect their interests and passions so they will have the drive and motivation to excel.

“This will not only ensure they get the best degree results possible but also help them stand out from the crowd in what is a hugely competitive job market and position them for a successful and fulfilling career.”

She adds that potential students shouldn’t fear choosing a degree in a narrow field as it does not necessarily limit your options.

“It’s more accurate to think of these degrees as a passport to a wide range of careers, even those not necessarily related to the chosen subject area.” Specifically, Clark explains the benefits of a creative degree, saying: “With the thriving £92bn creative sector growing at twice the rate of the UK economy, creative graduates are in high demand.”

But what does it get you?

If not for the specific degrees, university seems like a painfully expensive route to gaining skills you can get elsewhere. The price of university tends to discriminate based on background, with research showing poorer young people are put off having a large amount of debt and therefore being less likely to apply for university than when fees were lower. With fees around three times higher than the closest in Europe, students in England pay among the highest tuition fees in the world. The rise in students attending universities has not been consistent across students from lower-income backgrounds.

After this, you’re not even guaranteed a job once you leave, although you will still have a higher chance of employment than a non-grad.  In 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) released a comparison of graduate and non-graduate employment figures. It showed graduate unemployment to be only 3.1%, with non-graduates at 6.4% unemployment. Out of those employed, 56% of graduates were employed in high skilled jobs, while only 17% of non-graduates found themselves in similar positions. Additionally, it was found that young graduates would earn, on average, £6,000 more than their non-graduate contemporaries, although it has not apparently risen since 2008.

Your personality

Matt Tomkin, managing director of TAO Digital Marketing says other things are more important than qualifications.  “I find myself, when it comes to employing someone new, looking more at their personality and the way they carry themselves rather than their qualifications.”

He adds: “If I believe an individual has the drive and aptitude then I would much rather spend my time training up this person, providing them with new skills and knowledge that I myself have garnered over the years.”

He clarifies: “I would never disregard a person who had qualifications either. If I can see that they have that drive I’m looking for then any relevant education is just a bonus.”

William de Lucy, CEO of Amplify,  goes further to suggest that personality can be more important than you might think. “Companies want their staff to enjoy being at work and a significant part of this is how personnel get on with each other. ”

 “If students really want to get ahead then they need the right attitude to want to sacrifice their free time to attend the practical training modules being offered by universities. These can often be in the evenings or at weekends.”

When faced with a need for experience, but no one offering to train you, volunteering can be a good option, he says. “This proves they have genuine desire to do the role, and that they can hit the ground running. But it can be hard for students to really know what they want to do. How can you be genuinely passionate about a role if you have never really done it before? So I would encourage students to get as much practical education as they possibly can whilst at university.”

Work experience is key

Despite the suggestions that a specialised degree can be the best route into your chosen career, for Mark Buxton, marketing manager for shoe brand Daniel Footwear, work experience is the most important thing. “The fashion industry can be quite volatile, unpredictable and demanding at times, therefore applicants who have witnessed (and succeeded) in previous employment put themselves in the best position to deliver what we’re looking for.”

Perhaps apprenticeships or internships are a better way to go if you know what industry you want to get into. While having the chance to earn while you learn, it’s easy to gain the experience employers are looking for. The best time to undertake an apprenticeship appears to be after finishing secondary school. In 2014, 55% of young people expressed interest in undertaking an apprenticeship after leaving school. By 2018, that number had risen to 64%. That 9% rise in five years has been attributed to more secondary schools openly encouraging such a pursuit, with a 10% rise in teachers discussing the subject with their students over the same timeframe. The vast majority of teachers do not believe there are enough apprenticeships for their students, with only 26% disagreeing. Despite the  growth in interest, the number of apprenticeships has not changed since 2014.

The numbers drop considerably when approaching higher education, with only 21% of teachers recommending apprenticeships over university, although this was only 13% in 2014. The main reason seems to be that teachers still see university as the superior option, with 28% arguing that career prospects are better with a degree.

Merje Shaw, managing director of Path59, a specialist that provides customer experience consultancy and services to companies in traditional industries, argues in favour of experience as well. “A lot of the jobs we’re in these days did not have associated degree courses available when people were studying, so it would have been tricky to study for the exact job.”  She explains that a well-rounded CV is important, saying “I value internships and apprenticeships more than a degree but I have also learned to pay attention to the kinds of jobs they’ve done before. Many people try out different jobs before finding what they want to do. Traditionally, this has been seen as a negative on a CV but I’d much rather hire someone who has worked in a bar, done PR, run a food truck and built some websites than someone who has spent 6-7 years in a junior role in a bank.”

Shaw says most of how she learned was through “being at the coalface” of early stage start-ups like Skype. “So a relative lightness of degree has not impeded me in all but confidence when faced with people who still measure others’ worth by a piece of paper.” For those still set on attending university, Shaw offers the following advice: “The key is knowing WHY you want to go and study because I really believe just having (or not having) a degree won’t make a big difference in the longer term.”

It’s your call

Depending on who you ask, the quality of a degree can waver tremendously. Some employers won’t care about the subject, but take the fact you attended university as a sign of certain skills. Others seem to want a show of commitment to the industry, be it through a related degree or work  experience. If you know what you want to do, researching the industry and finding out if you need a degree to get into it seems to be the best idea. If you’re still unsure, you need to decide whether the lasting debt is worth the qualification.


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