Gone are the good old days when university was free for almost everyone in England. I consider myself one of the lucky ones who was in the last group of school leavers who were able to get a university degree and not pay any tuition fees for doing so. This made the decision of whether to go to university a little bit easier. Yes we still had the cost of accommodation and books plus some other things, but my part-time job at Clarks shoe shop was more than enough to allow me to be quite comfortable during my four years at university studying for a law degree.
Now the decision is a lot harder. In the twenty-five years that have proceeded since I left university, a lot has changed and one of the biggest changes is the huge rise in tuition fees. The same fees that went from zero to one thousand pounds the year after I started, have now reached double figures for every year of study. In fact, many of the younger members of my family who graduated recently have ended up with debts of unimaginable amounts.
Alternatives to a degree
Working on the pre-apprenticeship Traineeship program for the last few years I have come across many young students who have decided to not proceed to university after finishing their GCSE’s or A- levels. Others have started the first year at university and made a decision, based on their experience and some reflection, that it is not worth the time or money to continue with their degree. Personally I would say that there are many benefits to university; the real life experience, meeting individuals from so many different backgrounds and intensive learning through academic rigour. There are important lessons which can take place both inside and outside the lecture theatres or tutorial rooms! However, despite all of these benefits, it is now hard to justify the cost of a degree and the potential outcomes.
Another important factor to consider is whether you will stay in the same job or profession for life. I have my graduation certificate, friends both here in the UK and overseas and some fond memories, but in the end I didn’t actually spend a very long time in the profession that I entered after graduating. I practised law for a few years and then switched to teaching, finally ending up in my current position as a trainer and assessor for the courses on the pre apprenticeship Traineeship program. Despite the benefit of some transferable skills from studying law and practising as a solicitor, I do not really have much use for a lot of what I learnt over those years. In fact, I found myself in a strange situation upon qualifying as a lawyer, where I convinced myself that I should continue just because of the time, effort and money that I had spent getting to that point. Though I didn’t pay for my law degree I did end up paying back almost twelve thousand pounds in loans for one year of law school.
A changing market for students
The world has also changed so much since the 90s when I was a student, and most of my peers who graduated with law degrees are no longer practising law. Many have switch careers or chosen to enter into alternative professions for various different reasons. The time when people started their working life in one career and retired in their sixties without making a change seems to be long gone. Two books that I have read recently read indicate that change may be accelerated by two very different and yet connected ideas. The first is called The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford and the second is This changes everything by Naomi Klein. The first suggests that most of the current jobs and professions will eventually be done by machines and AI (Artificial Intelligence). Moore’s law regarding exponential increases in the speed and capability of information technology means that we may be left finding alternative options for work which may be more linked to creativity and managing the AI. The second book suggests that we may all need to focus on the biggest challenge of our times which is climate change and its adverse effects, looking at alternative models to the capitalist and consumerist or economic growth-based societies that we currently have. How or if universities respond to these changes may be interesting to see and in return may affect the decision of individuals considering their education and work options after school.
Right now, when we communicate with our employers and potential providers of apprenticeship opportunities for the programme graduates, the overall demands seem to be different and require a new set of skills. These are skills which we find our students sometimes do not actually gain in their formal education. Creativity, communication skills, the ability to collaborate effectively and to solve problems using out-of-the-box solutions are not skills that seem to be part of our student skillset. In fact, despite all of the hard work and efforts by teachers and of those involved in education, many of the young people that enter into our program seem to be lacking in self-confidence, are often unable to communicate their ideas effectively and often do not have ideas or answers to offer as creative solutions to solve tasks. Though this is not a criticism of those involved in education, it is something which is becoming more and more apparent as the months and years go by. A few days ago I was looking at my daughter’s work from school and couldn’t believe she was still doing the same topics in year seven that I studied at school thirty odd years ago. There is a complete mismatch in the demands of this current time and what is being offered.
So when it comes to making a decision about whether to go to university it may be more important to think about the following;
- Are there are alternatives available in my industry, such as work based and apprenticeship programs?
- Is it possible to work up to, or immediately enter a high- level apprenticeship?
- Is it possible to study part time, online or in the evenings as part of a flexible degree, such as with the Open University?
- Does the cost of studying for three or four years match the potential benefit at the end of it?
- How sure or knowledgeable am I about the area/industry that I am interested in?
- Is it worth trying out a few different areas first before committing to one?
There is not much joy in being saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and nothing much to show at the end of it. In fact, we now are able to offer and signpost apprenticeships in almost every single industry, meaning that students can work their way up without losing money and instead start earning a wage from day one. Obviously there are some areas, such as medicine, which might still require attending university before entering into the profession, but for most other industries, including my previous professions of law and also teaching, there seems to be no reason why you cannot start at the entry point and learn on the job. Flexibility seems to be the answer to a lot of our problems and challenges in education, for both schools and universities. But equally so in the working world. Despite the massive changes that technology and the recent pandemic have bought to the job market, the appropriate responses have not really followed.
Whether the now outdated model of university continues as it currently is, remains to be seen. I for one would not be encouraging youngsters to put themselves through three or four years of education just to be saddled with tens of thousands in debt, finding no potential jobs to match their skills and qualifications. Yes the skills that university provides such as discussion and debate, writing and research and intensive focus through study may be very valuable, but can these not be learnt while working? Let’s be honest, no one likes to feel short changed in life! However, the final choice is a very individual one which everyone needs to think about carefully after weighing up the options, downsides and benefits.