This week: should I pressure my son to go to university? Carla's 18-year-old son did poorly in his mock A-levels. Though he's bright, he says that after A-levels he wants to get a job in London instead of going to university, arguing that qualifications make no difference these days. What should she recommend?
Virginia Ironside

Eighteen's a confusing age, neither fish nor fowl, child nor adult. Most 18-year-olds are about half adult, as opposed to older people who, if they're exceptionally mature, can usually whittle their three- and four-year-old selves down to about 10 per cent, with these popping up only on holidays and on long car journeys. Carla's son has no idea yet what on earth he wants to do. And, at 18, it's not surprising. Unless he's been a committed musician since the age of three, who could never be torn away from the piano to watch television, or an ardent local historian since the age of four, with a collection of arrow-heads and fossilised frogs in his bedroom, he's probably just like the rest of us, who, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, reply, with a shrug of the shoulders: "Dunno." (Indeed, I often feel like replying the same way even now. )

But I'd guess that the underlying problem is that the bad results of his mocks shook Carla's son to the core, and he's taken this anti-university stand as an insurance against terrible A-level results. But if he gets reasonable grades, and a lot of flattery and boosting from teachers and his parents, he may well realise that, given the opportunity of university, he'd be a chump not to take it. After all, it's a good idea for loads of reasons other than information, new ways of looking and thinking about things, and a degree. Much more important: he gets away from his parents, he learns to live on his own with other people his age, and scrape by on a pittance; he learns to experiment with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, have fun, and, most important of all, pass the time until he is 22 or 23, when he will probably have grown up a bit and know better what he wants to do.

Perhaps he should go round various universities on their open days, just to see what they're like, and send off application forms to study in an areas in which he has even the very vaguest interest. If he gets a bite, it'll give him a push. He can defer his place and try to get a job in London for the next year if he can. But most young people, even those with degrees, are treated like child slaves these days by companies which, during their first "job", get them to run messages, do the photocopying and make the tea and coffee, for nothing at all. The kids are lucky to get their bus fares refunded. OK, there are some who walk straight from school into brilliant jobs as TV researchers - but there are also people who smoke 60 a day and don't die till they're 95.

Anyway, what does the boy want to do now? "Get a job in London" sounds a bit suss. What's his plan? Living out a fantasy of becoming a rock star? If so, he'd be better off at university, where he could easily form a band. Or does he want to join a squat of crusties in Brixton? University is full of exactly the same kind of people, in revolting halls of residence, plotting the downfall of planners and road-builders quite successfully and enjoyably.

If I were Carla I'd put pressure on her son to get a place at university, and suggest he takes a year off. If he finds that, for him, the streets of London are paved with gold, he won't have to take the place up after all. If he finds it dead boring and unfriendly, he's always got a safety net to fall back on

What readers say

It's the student's own motivation that counts

I work at a university advising students who sometimes find themselves on courses only through parental pressure. Your son has to find his own motivation. Without that, he's not going to succeed on a modern degree course. Nothing could be worse than finding himself on a course he has no wish to do.

Lots of students go to university as mature entrants. They are often far more inclined to devote time to their studies when they have some experience of working life first. He may prefer to qualify via the Open University, whereby he could continue to do paid work but do academic work in his spare time.

Don't forget that there can be benefits for you, too: if he works and supports himself for three years before 1 September of the year he starts university, he will be classed as an independent student, so that neither you nor your husband will be expected to contribute financially to his studies.

Give him the space and time to make his own decisions.

Name withheld

It's enjoyable, and he'll get a better job

I also did not want to go to university while I was in the sixth form - I fancied a year at art college and then starting work. However, I ended up applying for universities anyway (in theatre studies - a much more interesting course than any of my sterile A-level subjects) but did not get good enough grades. Never mind, I thought, I'll start work. After three months of clerical drudge (no one without a degree gets a nice management trainee position) I took an extra A-level and got into university.

It was definitely the best decision I ever took. Being a student, especially if you take a slightly vocational course where there is more practical work and less emphasis on endless reading lists, is just such fun. The people I met, the chance to do a handful of ridiculous things, and above all the luxury of learning something new without the rigid structure of mocks/exams which I had hated at school made it worthwhile. Besides, who ever said university is about hard work? One of my tutors admitted that in order to fail your first year you would have to remain in your room wearing a blindfold and earplugs.

Carla's son should go to university if he possibly can. How sad that he should want to become a worker bee so soon in life. He should have some time for himself and at the end of it the jobs on offer will be more varied and better paid if he is a graduate.

Victoria Williams, London W11

Go out and work immediately

I did very well in my A-levels and then wasted three years at university during which I did very little learning. I left university two years ago and I have still not picked up my degree, because it means nothing to me. I have been able to get jobs without it, because common sense and intelligence are things you develop on your own wherever you are.

Being a "student" is an excuse to behave in a moronic fashion for three years and I would advise anyone with a head on their shoulders, as this boy has (as he seems to have an independent mind), to go out and work immediately.

University will probably be destructive rather than constructive, as it was for most of my friends; they were bright and clever before going to university, and wasted their minds, time and money there.

A-levels are far and away the best and soundest qualification.

Name withheld

A degree ensures security, pride and dignity

The next century will see the rise of education and its importance in terms of employment, personal choice and freedom of movement. A university education will provide the maximum opportunity to find work and avoid long-term unemployment.

Today, not many university graduates are unemployed; people with only A-levels are, and will continue to be, considered unskilled and less educated. Higher education is no longer a privilege but a tool for competing in the job market.

Your son is not well motivated for university but he must be told that there is a secure future which can be achieved through higher education and proper skills; fewer skills and indequate education will lead him to despair and gloom.

He also must be informed that university education gives choice and intellectual freedom which is essential for personal pride and individual dignity.

Dr Salim Haidrani, London NW1

Next week's problem: is it fair to keep a dog in London?

Dear Virginia,

I live in London, with a cat. My husband died a year ago quite unexpectedly, and I am extremely lonely even though I work all day. Friends keep telling me to get a dog, but I am wondering if it is fair to keep a dog in town, who would be alone a lot of the day. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Rosie

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent',

1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293-2182) by Tuesday morning.

If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, please let me know.

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