Education > With the huge rise in student debt is university still worthwhile?

Posted on August 11, 2015
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Image Angela Mascolo

To go or not to go? Year 12 student Angela Mascolo weighs up the pros and cons as uni becomes less affordable for young people

If like me you are a Year 12 student going onto Year 13, you may well be familiar with the university ‘push’: endless assemblies and conversations about higher education, A-level grades and UCAS points, university open days, coming home with glossy prospectuses…

Don’t get me wrong – I have always been keen on uni. I love History and modern languages and want to continue my studies in greater depth. But with university becoming more expensive, students need to really think about why they want to go – what exactly do we want to get out of the whole experience?

Some degrees are essential for certain professions. So if you’re planning to pursue a career in something like medicine or law – where the degree constitutes some of the actual training – then it’s the necessary path to take.

Furthermore, according to data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, graduates still earn almost £10,000 a year more than people without degrees.

There are also many not-so-obvious transferable skills developed through a university degree. These include research, analytical and writing skills.

Of course, we cannot forget the ‘uni life’, which many students crave. It may seem superficial but it does allow us to mature and become more independent – for students living away from home for the first time they must learn to travel, cook, clean and do the laundry without the help of their parents.

Unfortunately, the benefits of going to university are undermined by the massive costs. These are putting off many able students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students can still get direct loans here however.

Believe it or not, university in the UK used to be free – it wasn’t until 1998 that tuition fees were introduced, but at that time it cost just £1,000 a year across the UK.

Unfortunately, the benefits of going to university are undermined by the massive costs

In England fees rose to £3,000 per year in 2004, reaching £3,375 by the end of the decade and shooting up to £9,000 in 2012. Moreover, this figure will probably rise with inflation for students expecting to start university in September 2016.

To make matters worse, the Maintenance Grant – which offered up to £3,387 per year for poorer students to help with rent, food and bills – was scrapped in the July 2015 Tory budget. As a result, the overall cost of going to university is now between £50-60k for a three year degree.

According to research carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS), more than half of students who receive maintenance grants say they would not be at university without them. More students are now considering staying at home to save money, which restricts their choice of university and the uni experience.

It was interesting looking at popular Canadian vlogger Stefan Molyneux’s comparison of the wages of a plumber and doctor, using economic analysis carried out in the USA. The doctor with a university degree earns $185,895 per year. In contrast, the plumber’s salary is $71,685.

But despite the doctor probably having a more stressful job and working longer hours, he/she will only be able to spend $33,666 per year, over his/her adult life (19 to 100 and assuming retirement at 62). This is because of the student debts and years spent studying without earning. Surprisingly, the plumber – with no debts and starting work much earlier – will be able to spend around the same amount, $33,243. Get help with your debt here.

Similar comparisons would apply in England, and show that even securing a well-paid profession with a degree does not necessarily mean you’re financially better off than someone with a trade.

The Government has been eager to reassure students that they should not be put off by higher fees. The salary threshold (how high your salary is before you start paying off your loan) has increased from £15,000 to £21,000. That means 9% of anything you earn over £21,000 is taken to repay your loan. But if you never reach that amount you don’t have to pay anything back.

According to the Higher Education Commission, 73% of all students will still be unable to pay off their loans after 30 years. This shows that, while a degree may open doors to an enjoyable career, you cannot necessarily expect to be earning massive amounts of money from your degree.

Securing a well-paid profession with a degree does not necessarily mean you're financially better off than someone with a trade

So considering the financial implications, is going to university still worth it? One way of deciding is to look at the opportunities that a university degree can actually offer.

For example, a former Exposure volunteer who achieved a First in ‘Magazine Publishing’ at Middlesex University was never even taught Adobe InDesign, the industry-standard software for laying out magazines!

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), comments that although “university leavers are still better paid … many graduates are now finding themselves doing lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs.”

Teachers often give good advice and support on going to university, but don’t always offer alternatives. Clearly they want us to receive the best education, but it’s also true that the more students going off to universities, the better the reputation of their sixth form.

In reality, not everybody is academic and you do not need a degree to be successful. Many wealthy business people leave school with few qualifications, and this is often down to the fact that their communication and leadership skills prove to be more valuable.

So what are the alternatives to going to university? An obvious example is apprenticeships. On offer is a wide variety of practical courses including banking, management and catering, and by going straight into employment you are learning more about the world of work, years ahead of graduates – what’s more, you are paid for your efforts!

As an apprentice, you work towards a qualification, a valuable addition to your CV. You will also build professional relationships, allowing you to gain references to help when you are applying for a job. You can search for vacancies at the government’s apprenticeship website.

In reality, not everybody is academic and you do not need a degree to be successful

Another option is volunteering. As a voluntary worker you will be trying out a new job without making a long-term commitment. It gives you the opportunity to practice essential workplace skills, including communication, teamwork, problem-solving, project planning and organisation. If you are interested in volunteering Google your local volunteering centre.

For those who are still planning to go to university, you should take advantage of the long holidays by gaining experience through a part-time job or internship. The more people getting degrees the less valuable they become, so it’s crucial to have other work-related skills in order to stand out to a potential employer. Having a job while at uni will also allow you to save money to pay off your student debts more easily when you finish.

The fact is, there is no right or wrong answer to whether university is worth it. It depends on what you are looking for as an individual. But before you take this big step, it’s important to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages carefully in order to make an informed choice.

Angela Mascolo

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