Today, we are constantly hearing about the high prices charged by universities, the levels of graduate unemployment in sluggish economies and the sizeable debts that university leaves you with. With all of these factors, the question justifiably arises in the minds of students and their families: is university still a worthwhile investment? Is a degree still a good avenue for mobility?
What then is the value of university? For me, it wasn’t about the academics. Although I can now actively debate foreign policy and understand the election process, what I gained from university was life experience. Living away from home for the first time, paying bills and managing adult relationships are all part of the learning curve that a university experience provides. Although the academic side of university may not prove to be the investment you hoped for, the transferrable skills, logic and maturity possessed by a graduate, in comparison to a school leaver differ dramatically and can make a big difference in the job market.
The OECD argues that a more skilled workforce will help drive global economic growth.
Compared to the mid 80s when only one in ten jobs were for those with a degree, more than a quarter of the labour market is now only open to graduates and as such it is three times more likely for a high school graduate to be unemployed, than a university graduate. Similarly, according to the Pew Research group in the US, those with higher levels of education are better insulated against cuts during recession.
Clearly then, it is increasingly the case that experts believe that university is incredibly important, but with student numbers multiplying across the world (from 50 million in 1980 to 170million in 2010), degrees are becoming more common place and students must look for other ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. In today’s “knowledge based economy”, good jobs require both skills and adaptability. Extracurricular activities and internships give students the opportunity to expand their skill set and gain commercial experience, therefore allowing them to stand out as they are adaptable and able to adjust to new products, processes and arrangements. Consequently, innovators and entrepreneurs do well, regardless of their academic background.
It could then be argued that higher education is still a valuable commodity in the current economy and that despite the increasing commonality of a degree, its worth as a stepping stone for your future is unparalleled. However, this experience and development all comes at a cost. The cost of a degree, not just in time, but in money is continually increasing. As a student in the UK, I was hit by the top up fees that were introduced in 2004 and as a result, my university education (living expenses included) cost me around £20,000. Despite attending one of the most highly ranked institutes in the country; do I feel that my degree provided value for money? No, but I do believe that it provided me with life experience and transferrable skills that have meant I avoided unemployment upon graduation. With the recent changes to remove a cap on fees, the price is increasing further and it leads me to question whether that education would still be valuable?
Across the world, young people are performing calculations and asking the same questions: pay their way through three or four years of higher education for uncertain returns, or take their chances without a degree. They say that your student loan is the lowest interest level loan you will ever be able to take, but what they don’t tell you is that no matter how hard you work as a graduate, you will only be just about be breaking even on those interest levels and you’ll barely make a dent in the amount that you owe. For the foreseeable future, the answer to “do you currently have any outstanding debts” will always be yes.
Applications in the UK are down from 45,000 last year to around 39,000 for this year and the figures are worse in the US. Public figures such as Richard Branson and Lord Sugar show that academics isn’t everything, and as such many students are turning their back on higher education in favour of starting out early and climbing the career ladder from the bottom.
Undoubtedly then, the face of the economy is changing and there should be alternative routes to higher skills rather than traditional university residential courses. There is a strong role for businesses to provide paid internships and apprenticeships. By enticing talented individuals at an early age they can provide real experience and commercial skills, whilst shaping an individual’s career path, without a $100,000 debt at the end.
When you weigh up the odds it’s arguable that the concept of university for all is a dated notion. With economic crises occurring across the world and many developing countries in recession, it seems that the best way to boost the economy is through work. In the past it may have been the case that university gave people an advantage. The grants and low cost tuition meant that the education and experience you gained were worth their weight in gold and allowed you to survive the cuts during tough times. However, across the developing world, many entrepreneurs are forging stronger career paths outside of the traditional academic routes, the traditional trades are flourishing and the social gulf that was previously defined by educational boundaries is shrinking. Higher education is a must, but university is definitely not as valuable as it once was and we instead live in a meritocratic age where ideas, motivation, drive, and individuality are of more value.