Some of our best people have done it (not gone to university, that is). So why bother, especially when a graduate tax is going to make your degree an expensive way to party for three years? Eleanor Bailey reports
SENECA, tutor to Emperor Nero, thought that there was no point studying anything except for philosophy. "You want my attitude towards liberal studies?" he sneered. "Well, I have no respect for any study whatever." Seneca thought life was too short for studying history. What he thought of media studies has not been recorded.

The government is committed to the principle of higher education for all who want it. But the Higher Education Bill currently going through Parliament will make a degree an increasingly expensive option. What's more, recent research reveals that, when it comes to recruitment, employers continue to discriminate in favour of the "top" universities and against the former polytechnics and redbricks. Students to be must be wondering if a degree is worth their while. It's one thing to spend three years partying at the taxpayer's expense, but quite another to do it at your own. You'd forgive school leavers for thinking that it might be better to take the fast track into work, particularly when there are so many prominent success stories who by-passed university altogether.

The number of school leavers going on to higher education is estimated to rise from 32 per cent to 45 per cent over the next 20 years, with many of the increase coming from the sniffily-titled "sub-degree" level. Does that just mean that as the competition gets tougher students will have to strive harder and pay more to become better qualified to stay in the same place? Will a degree become so much the norm that if all you're reading is the History of Mickey Mouse at Ex-Poly University you'll be wasting your time and be better off getting ahead in the University of Life?

The Department of Education's official line is that students are likely to be stretched further and achieve more. "We believe in giving people something to aim for. The previous government believed in capping the numbers that could go to university. We want to give as many people access as possible to get more education, vocational or academic."

But in a lot of fields, a plain degree from an ordinary institution will not get you any Brownie points. In fact not having a degree might make you seem less of a crowd-follower. Ian Jack, editor of literary magazine Granta, former editor of this paper and non-graduate, argues "Degrees are something that people expect you to have. Sure there's a lot of snobbery, but I do think you learn a lot more on the job. Obviously, subjects like engineering and medicine where you need a body of knowledge are different ,but I think arts degrees are one of life's great hoaxes. It's a pleasant thing to do but I don't think that the economic life of this country would collapse if there were no more English degrees."

Universities are like celebrities. There is an A List and there is a D list. An Oxford First is a Leonardo DiCaprio while your local FE college domestic science degree is a killed-off EastEnders star. Abigail, who graduated in 1992 from a Sixties university and now works in marketing, rates her education as distinctly D list, and in career terms largely a waste of time. "I don't find that employers are terribly impressed by my degree. I've had to prove myself on other levels. My degree was in English but what I actually learnt was how to get by on the absolute minimum. Looking back I regard the intellectual requirements of my degree as scandalous. In my second year there were no exams, I attended no lectures and you only had to hand in eight essays. I produced five, three of them in the last week of the summer term written over a solid 48-hour period. I handed them in and the head of English never even bothered to mark them. I still sailed through to the final year. At the time I was finding out about life mainly through a prolific drugs habit. In the third year I crammed three months before my finals and only just missed a 2.1. Reluctantly, I think that making students pay is in some ways a good thing. I'm sure it would have made me take it more seriously. But as far as work goes, I would have done better to have got a job right after school."

So called "vocational" degrees in such fashionable subjects as media or communication studies are something everyone seems to want to do now in the hope of a glamorous career in television. But they are not always taken seriously in the industry. Ruth Kelly, production manager at At It productions, an independent television company currently producing Channel 4's new late night music show Jo Wiley, says she is deeply suspicious of a CV with Media Studies on it. "Quite a few people here haven't been to university. It's not something that necessarily gets you through the front door. Experience in television counts for a hell of a lot more. We want people who spent from the ages of five to 15 watching TV and don't expect to be an executive producer in three months."

More conventional employers agree. Fiona Colquhoun, the director of human resources at ICL, a company which has 10,000 employees in the UK, says that there are factors which are more important than a degree result. "If people have a personality and can sell and communicate, that will mean they have a future in management, possibly more so than the person with a double first who has nothing else."

Those intelligent people who bypassed the university system seem to have an aura of cool street confidence because of their decision (Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard, being the nerdy exception). But whether this is because they missed the extended adolescence of university years or because they were self-motivated and mature in the first place is open to question. Mark Borkowski, who has been running his own successful PR company since 1988, says, "It's down to personal ability. Failing to get my university place (he applied for town planning and history) gave me the kick up the arse I needed."

People are always surprised to discover that Kate Saunders, author and former Booker Prize judge, didn't go to Oxbridge. "No one has ever been chippy about it but that's purely because I have a posh voice. Probably if I was the kind of person who never read a book it might have held me back, but because I was from a middle-class, bookish background, I must have read an entire English course anyway. Having an authentic North London sneer helped. I might have not have been so arrogant if I'd have been brought up on a chicken farm."

Not everybody is brought up with such world-conquering confidence. A degree is still seen as a passport to a better career, although many people don't think in terms of what they'd enjoy studying, but what will yield the best results. Louise Richards, 28, a mature student at the University of Hertfordshire, explains, "Doing a degree was very much a career move, not a life choice for me. I had been working until the age of 25 and I was stuck in dull administrative jobs. I am doing an arts degree so that I can then do teacher training. A lot of the younger students here think that they're going to walk into a job, and, having been in the workplace, I don't think that's really true. They think that they're one step ahead of the rest but nearly everyone is getting degrees, so unless you've got a really good degree, all you're doing is keeping up with everyone else." Ironically, she says, "What a university education does do is give you confidence, because you understand that everyone who has a degree isn't a genius after all."

Anyone who's ever been there knows that not even Oxbridge graduates are guaranteed to be great brains. Some are merely very good at exams, without an original thought in their heads. Nevertheless, the Oxbridge stamp of approval carries cachet. Employers often allow themselves to think that if they pick an Oxbridge candidate the university has done some of the selection for them already. Ruth Kelly admits that "If a candidate has been to university, then I would notice if it was one which has a reputation for being academically rigorous, which would suggest that they can work to distraction, be self-motivated and meet deadlines. The subject is less important." So it remains the case that if you went to Durham or Edinburgh and you have a 2:1, your CV is less likely to take a short cut to the personnel paper shredder than if you went to a university nobody ever heard of. As a general rule, however, a vocational degree is likely to do you no more good than experience in the field - and you won't get paid for it. So while ideas like learning for learning's sake and three years of freedom for young minds to expand and grow remain unfashionable (and expensive) why not buck the system? As Kate Saunders says, "Just as there comes a time when you can say `In my youth I was a great beauty', so you can look back and say `Oh, I would have been the Merton Professor of English if I'd bothered with university.' No one can prove otherwise."