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Is university worth it?

With sky high fees and weakened employment prospects, young people are graduating into a harder and more competitive world than their predecessors.

From the young woman who poured my last pint, to the inquisitive fellow who sold me some shirts, I keep meeting graduates working in retail. I know of bedsits where bright people with Mscs and Phds live. The UK is not short of well-educated under-achievers, who surely dreamt of a more-fulfilling life than the menial tasks they are now confined to. I speak as a graduate myself, (a 2.1 in history and politics) one who has been asked on many occasions ‘what will that help you do?’. I know all too well the dismissive attitudes of those who were educated in the ‘university of life’ and have seldom given them much shrift. I am also glad to say that having worked full-time as a journalist for past decade, I have been able to draw on my university knowledge on many occasions during my work. Those who slight academia, or dismiss the value of education per se, are surely off-track.

Yet with my own relatively small student loan still reducing my net income, I can only imagine what it must be like to graduate with three or four times that amount of debt. I am fortunate to be have missed the raising of tuition fees and joined the media industry before it seriously contracted in size. But today, new technologies have drastically reduced the number of clerical jobs, just as much as those in media. Young graduates are leaving university with record debts and the job market has been tough for young people in recent years. A significant number of graduates might well ask ‘was it worth it?’, and some will conclude ‘no’.

DEBT

The government and the universities both argue that higher education is the key to a more prosperous life. Graduates typically earn more than non-graduates, are less likely to be unemployed and are even found to be happier. The debts are significant but these are only begin to be repaid once the salary of the graduate reaches a certain threshold when repayment is not a problem, government says. Currently, the threshold for repayment is £21,000, but the numbers of students predicted to repay all of their debt during their careers is falling. When the coalition government trebled tuition fees it predicted that 72% of graduates would be able to repay in full. This has now slumped to 55% and if fall just another 3.6% then the profit the Exchequer thought it would gain from changing the fees structure in 2010 will be wiped out.

EARNING POWER

But the inability of graduates to repay is surely an indictment of their prospects post-university? The government argues that graduates earn more than non-grads and are less likely to be unemployed. This central claim is indeed true, but what is also clear is that it is truer for some disciplines than others. The current gross average UK salary is £26,500 and some graduates surpass this easily, those with medical or engineering degrees earning the most. But prospective students should be aware that those with degrees in Art and Media earn below £22,000 per year - less than the national average. Furthermore graduates in humanities, languages, law and social sciences will do well to earn more than £30,000 per year. Arguably not a bad figure but less appealing when student debts are of a similar amount.

But then these figures relate to all graduates (21-65 years old) and there is concern that the earning power of young people is falling more rapidly than the other sections of society. Some argue one way to counter this is for bright young people to take degrees in ‘harder subjects’ such as maths and science or areas where there are skill shortages and high demand, such as computer programming. But what may surprised many is how often this precise tactic doesn’t appear to pay off.

COMPUTER SCIENCE

Earlier this year I wrote a series of features focusing on tech start-ups across the UK in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle. All of the entrepreneurs interviewed said a shortage of programmers was an issue, but also complained that computer science graduates didn’t have the skills they were looking for.

Dan Kirby is the founder and CEO of TechDept, who’s Sheffield-based office even has its own helter-skelter, attracts many interested graduates but has to turn down a lot down for a lack of appropriate programming skills. Kirby says university lecturers “lose their cutting edge” and end up teaching students things which are no longer relevant to industry. He urges young people with computer skills to look at online teaching platforms as a way to get ahead, rather than university. “Many young people – with the right entrepreneurial attitude and the right access to resources – could rapidly overtake current university graduates by the time they’re 18. We have already seen some who are, thanks to teaching themselves in their own time,” he says.

The demand for bridges to be built between business and academia led Adam Ball to create Coding Cupboard, which provides a ‘matchmaking service’ for businesses and computer science students. Ball, a former computer science student himself, was inspired to create the business in part by his own experience of university. “I was taught a lot of things but not how to sell myself and make my skills attractive to a business. I taught myself how to make apps and websites during my final year and it was this that got me a job,” he says. “Computer science skills need to make business sense and we need a bridge between academia and business. A lot of what is taught in university, isn’t relevant to businesses.”

SMALL BUSINESSES

But the universities are hardly standing still and to talk of academic ivory towers is surely over-stating the issue. There are many initiatives linking businesses and with students and universities. Professor Julian Beer is pro vice-chancellor for Regional Enterprise at Plymouth University. The university runs and works with a series of programmes which aim to ‘put wire’ between businesses, students and universities. He says one of the issues is that smaller businesses don’t tend to recruit graduates and students focus on working for larger businesses. This is in itself a problem as the UK economy is dominated small and medium sized companies. The Plymouth Graduate Internship Programme (PGIP) aims to address this by enabling employers to “try before they buy” students as short-term paid interns. Beer says the scheme has been very successful with around 70% of students remaining with their employers. It also addresses a problem which the far South West has in retaining talent. “A lot of graduates gravitate toward the South East and London. In the South West there aren’t many corporate businesses, but there’s a preponderance of SMEs (small and medium-sized business). One of the initiatives we focusing on getting SMEs to recognise the benefits of employing graduates,” he says. “Also on the flip side it’s about showing graduates that it’s not all about corporates. Most businesses in the South West are SMEs and graduates don’t think about the opportunities in these type of businesses.”

WORK EXPERIENCE

The growing importance of work experience for students is something which Dr Paul Redmond of the University of Liverpool has seen in his role as head of careers and employability. Redmond says the job market has changed dramatically since the credit crunch. “The good news is the market is definitely improving and we are coming out of the impact of the crunch. But the job market for graduates has changed. We often talk of BC (before crunch) and AD (after depression),” he says. “Now more employers are working with students that have done work experience with them. Not just any work experience, but with that particular company. Also, companies are finding specific students on specific courses via LinkedIn. We used to run courses on how to write CVs and we still do that but we are doing this via LinkedIn profiles.”

Redmond describes an increasingly network driven, contacts building world, for young students and has even composed a formula for graduates aiming for success:

Employment = Qualification + Work Experience + Skills x Contacts

It’s a far cry from the university experience of the 1980s or even for those, such as myself, who graduate at the turn of the century. “When I was a student people started looking for jobs in their final year. Now we say the first year is their final year,” says Redmond.

WORTH IT?

Ultimately the decision to go or not go to university is a personal one. But students and parents need to be as aware just how much universities and the graduate job market has changed. Applying students should also try to learn as much as they can about the precise nature of their degree courses - some are clearly better than others. But beyond the degree there are a host of opportunities for students to gain experience, build contacts and set themselves up for life after university. Degree qualifications are a standard requirement for many employers, but they are an expensive prerequisite for young people. There is also hope that although there’s been a lack of jobs for young people recently, that this will change as the economy gains momentum. But what of my graduate bartender and retail assistant, was it all a big mistake for them? Perhaps not, suggests Professor Beer.

“It depends on the individual. There’s always been a pattern of where graduates tend to fall into a job, one which doesn’t require a degree. But they don’t tend to stay there. Five years down the line they are in graduate job.”

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