My youngest child is not sure about whether it is still worth going to university. He is more entrepreneurial that my other two children and less inclined to enjoy academia. He chose to do Btec’s instead of A’levels, as he was better suited to a continual assessment style approach rather than have to deal with exams. He has had university offers, but wants to do a gap year and then see. My stubborn inclination has always been to encourage everyone to go to university if they can, but naturally I will support whatever he decides to do as ultimately it has to be his decision.

He will still be looking for considered advice, which I am finding increasingly difficult to offer. There is a sense of a greater questioning as to whether or not university is the right route for everyone and the acceptance of a degree’s intrinsic value is no longer a given. Despite knowing that universities do not suit all kinds of learners, the decision not to go remains risky in this flooded market, as most young people still want a degree, even if it will not boost their earnings as much as they had hoped. However there does appear to be a shift towards companies looking for school leavers with experience rather than with a degree – people who are engaging, sociable and good on the phone. BUT, the recent trend to referencing the successes of anybody who became a successful entrepreneur without going to university before the 2008 crash (such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates) is surely misleading? The environment post 2008 is far more challenging and the days of walking out of school at 18 and straight into £100k jobs are well and truly over.

Given the current cost of university, rising student debt, the current tutor strikes, the extortionate interest they have to pay and the demise of the graduate premium owing to the flooding of the market, is the value of a degree still worth it? He may well do better getting straight into the job market or doing an apprenticeship. My two older children loved university, but now have debts of over £30K and one of them can’t find a job. My approach has never been to look at university life in financial terms or view it as the best measure of the skills and knowledge needed for a job, but rather a time to grow in a relatively soft space that can probably never be repeated again in one’s lifetime. A chance to make lifelong friends from a wide range of backgrounds, develop intellectual growth and inspiration, live in a supportive environment, find career opportunities, try new activities, explore many subjects, develop some key employability skills, have fun and freedom and learn to manage time. It enhances both personal status and self-respect. But the marketplace is changing and degrees are just too common these days – which means non-graduates are getting locked further out of decent work. The return on investment now has to equal a 15% annual interest before it matches the average value over a working life of gaining a degree.

Btec’s weren’t on offer at my son’s original school, but it now seems that even some of the top private schools in the country are encouraging more pupils to learn a trade as they move away from pushing all students towards universities by introducing Btec courses as well as A Levels. The number of students taking Btec vocational qualifications has doubled in four years and bright school leavers are being encouraged to go straight into work through degree apprenticeships.

But are graduates more unprepared for the real world than ever? Countries have skills shortages, not degree shortages and technology is moving so fast that most of us can’t keep up. He could end up working in cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, driverless cars or something as yet unknown. By August this year it’s quite possible that we will see an end to typing as the next billion internet users will rely on video and voice. The future is in data. Those who know how to measure and analyse it will rule the world and therefore inevitably more companies are hiring those with technical and business skills.

A degree still remains a prerequisite for many jobs, a fact that might turn out to be important in the future if your child decides on a change of career. But as more young people seek degrees, the returns both to them and to governments are lower. Why are employers demanding degrees for jobs that never required them in the first place such as nursing, teaching and many civil service posts? Recruiters are increasingly able to demand degrees in order to screen out the least motivated or competent. 16% of waiters in the USA now have degrees (probably in acting) and according to The Economist, two thirds of those with degrees are doing work that was mostly done by non-graduates 50 years ago – and it’s not as if the work has got anymore complicated, at least if you judge it by the pay as real wages have fallen significantly.

A third of university entrants never graduate and it is the students admitted with the lowest grades who are least likely to graduate, so perhaps the best thing I can do is not allow my third born to be misled about the probable value of a university degree.

So what about an apprenticeship?

Ministers are marking National Apprenticeship Week this week by saying they remain committed to the apprenticeship targets, but new research casts doubt on the plan and implementation of the reforms. Currently the government is likely to fail in its target of creating three millions apprenticeships by 2020 amid a catalogue of issues including low pay and red tape, new research suggests. The number of new apprentices has fallen by 27% compared to the year before and follows on from the 60% collapse in new apprenticeships in the previous quarter according to official figures. There needs to be an overhaul of the apprenticeship levy that is supposed to support the plans. School-leavers should be given a wider variety of ways to gain vocational skills and to demonstrate their employability in the pivot sector.

Parents have recently been blamed for being dismissive of apprenticeships in general. WELL WE ARE CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVES, but what are they? It’s hard to encourage your child to go for an apprenticeship when only 2,100 school leavers got onto higher or degree apprenticeships last year out of half a million 18 year olds. Even if they do get a coveted place, the pay is pathetic. The apprentice national minimum wage is going to rise to £3.70 an hour next month. THREE POUNDS AND 70 PENCE AN HOUR?? That is around £30 a day which will buy them a Subway and might just get them home on the train. £150 a week. They might as well work in a cafe. Many young people in that situation will end up paying more in commuting and other expenses than they can earn and will obviously have to live at home as it’s nowhere near enough to live on. Surely that is exploitation and going to put most people off?

The levy introduced to fund an expansion of the training programme is not working and concerns are that businesses are getting out of their commitments by using the money to train existing staff, including executives taking MBA’s, whilst smaller companies have scrapped their old schemes because the paperwork has become too complicated. MAKE IT SIMPLER PLEASE.

So what is the answer?

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  1. If he is academically inclined then he should go to university…..it will provide him with greater career choices later on. If he has a “handyman” aptitude, then an apprenticeship would be well worth doing……in Oz qualified electricians, carpenters, plumbers etc earn excellent money eventually and a major bonus is the opportunity to operate your own business…..not only that these skills are all transferable to any country in the world. I’m offering this little bit of advice based on my own experience of lacking formal qualifications through most of my working life which resulted in fewer career choice options and meant making my way from the bottom of the rung each time I changed direction. Hope this helps.

    • Family Affairs on

      Thanks – yes it does help. Wouldn’t say he was academically inclined, but maybe he’s a late starter!! Lx

  2. We are an independent training organisation offering an alternative to university after A Level. We have been in operation for over 50 years and 87% of our graduates are in work within 8 weeks of leaving us: Quest Professional

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