Is University Really Worth It? |
With students facing overwhelming debts and a shortage of graduate jobs, whether degrees are worth the paper they’re printed on has been called into question. So is going to university a smart idea in 2018? Two SL team members debate…
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YES, My Experience Was Life-Changing

Poppy Rushforth, Editor, The Brief Daily

On paper, I’m exactly the kind of person who might want to have a hard think about whether university is worth it. I was the first person in my family to go to university, didn’t have any financial safety net, studied a stereotypically 'useless' subject, but after spending three years at Oxford University – an arguably outdated institution at which I often felt out of place – I still think the experience was not only worth it but life-changing. 

The fees are undeniably daunting. I recently calculated that, at my current pace, it would take more than 400 years to pay off my debts. That’s scary, but it’s also missing the point. When talking about the financial side of a degree, we seem to forget two major facts.

Firstly, you’ll only pay back your fees if you can afford to. If you can’t, you won’t. If you’re earning over £25,000 – the threshold at which payments start – the amount you pay increases incrementally as your salary rises, so you’re barely going to feel the pinch, let alone be financially crippled. In terms of finances while you’re studying, many universities offer bursaries and reduced fees for students from low-income families and there’s always that boring, part-time holiday job.

Secondly, everyone’s in the same boat. All university leavers from 2015 and beyond will have debts of £9,000+ a year, so is it really that much of a disadvantage? It may be an inefficient, bungled system, but when you cut through all the confusion there’s nothing in the maths to put you off pursuing higher education if it’s the path you want. By perpetuating the myth that university debts are somehow financially crippling and life-ruining, we’ll only discourage less wealthy students from applying, thereby making higher education – and especially ‘less profitable’ arts degrees – the reserve of the privileged, even more so than they already are.

As for the benefits of university, degrees are still a standard requirement in many industries. While it’s pretty clear the system needs shaking up and more must be done to boost the profile of vocational courses, for many employers, a lack of a degree on a CV would be a glaring omission. Building a career is hard enough without this added obstacle.

University life also offers a kind of adulthood-lite. It’s often the first time you have to find a flat, sort out bills and feed yourself, but without the same responsibilities and pressures of working adulthood. It’s a great trial run for further down the line.

Before university, I’d always lived in the same town in south-west London and had no idea about life outside the capital. Moving away, even if it’s only an hour or so drive, can challenge and grow your perspective. You learn a lot about yourself from being placed in an unfamiliar environment and left to develop your own support network. It can undeniably be challenging – and far from the only way to get this kind of experience – but it’s also fruitful.

And let’s not forget what you actually come to university for: the course. There aren’t many chances in life to dive into a subject you’re genuinely fascinated by, in a world that often doesn’t place much value on learning for its own sake.

University isn’t – and shouldn’t be – for everyone, but it’s a chance to learn how to think for yourself and work out who you want to be as an adult in a smaller and less scary environment than the real world, a time to build life-long friendships and widen your horizons. More pragmatically, the current hysteria surrounding student debt will only perpetuate inequality, and won’t do anything to fix the system’s considerable flaws.

NO, I Wish I’d Taken A Vocational Course

Rosy Cherrington, Features Editor

There are those times in life you reach a fork in the road – two vastly different paths each snaking out before you; each one with new friends, new love, a new life. You think of future you, standing somewhere at the end. Try to work out which version is happier with just as much perspicuity as squinting at the sun. I’ll admit I chose the easy route – university was where I was expected to go, so I went, as did my whole college circle.

Looking back on it now, there’s no sense of regret (after all, my future self didn’t turn out too badly) – but if I had the chance again in our current-day climate, I’d do things a lot differently. Instead of spending three years and over £30,000 to fit in with the crowd, I’d have taken the £3,000, sixth-month vocational course I was also considering.

In reality, I ended up doing both. After struggling to land an internship after my English Lit degree from Goldsmiths, it was clear I needed an edge – and an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism (the exact same vocational course I’d looked into years earlier) did the trick. A month after it finished, now with a bursting portfolio and a profitable blog, I was working for one of the UK’s biggest broadsheets.

Where would I have ended up if I’d cut out the middle man – skipped university and gone straight for the course? Higher up the career ladder, a large part of me suspects, perhaps with a house of my own (or perhaps that’s my own wistful thinking). There is the question of whether prestigious publications would have even considered me without a degree, but I truly believe the landscape is changing – at least in the media industry.

And so it should. Unless you’re planning on a career in academia, most arts degrees are nothing but a costly stretch of naval-gazing. Did I enjoy the weeks spent anatomising great works of literature, a suspended adolescence with no real responsibility? Of course. But none of it equipped me with anything I needed to succeed in the workplace or otherwise. In hindsight, I should’ve just joined a book club.

This pressure-free state of adulthood-lite, as Poppy put it, isn’t an actuality for all students either – what about those who have to work year-round and fall behind in their studies, the students turning to sex work for rent money?

There’s no denying today’s education system gives those from privileged backgrounds a spate of unfair advantages – and solutions like shorter degrees and lower fees must be considered – but the idea that a ‘BA (Hons)’ on your CV spells success and intelligence also needs radicalising.

Tony Blair’s infamous 1999 pledge to get half of school-leavers into universities has almost been met – rising to 49% in September last year – yet young people are no better off. Burdened by debt, and often for nothing; it’s estimated over half of UK graduates are now working non-graduate jobs.

Whether the blame is on Blair for promoting unrealistic aspirations, or Britain's failure to create sufficient ‘highly-skilled’ positions’, is a topic for another debate. But one thing's a no-brainer – it’s time vocational training and apprenticeships had as much prestige as university degrees.

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