University: Is it still worth the trouble?

As hundreds of thousands of teenagers digest their A-level results and worry about what's next, Rory Crew and Emily Dugan ask what higher education has to offer and if there are alternatives
Click to follow

It has been a week of contrasting states of elation and panic for many of Britain's 18-year-olds. Up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of students have been fighting to gain a coveted university place in what is proving a particularly competitive year.

Those who missed their first choices are having to battle it out with six other applicants – a record – for each spare spot. At least 150,000 students with provisional offers are unlikely to get a place. Even getting all A grades is no guarantee any more. Record numbers with top marks in their A-levels are expected to miss out on their university choices this year.

So is it worth the hysteria to make it through the gates? Without belittling the diverse opportunities and experiences that university provides – not to mention the comfort it offers those who don't have a career mapped out – is the balance tipping?

Finance is a major issue. Students are graduating with an average debt of £25,000. The unemployment rate for graduates rose from 11 per cent in December 2008 to 14 per cent a year later. On top of that, a saturated jobs market means that many careers require months of unpaid work before a wage is even discussed.

Until now, the debt has been outweighed by the anticipation of a rising salary. Recent research by the university guide showed that, after 10 years, graduate pay was, on average, 38 per cent higher than the salaries of non-graduates.

But, in the uncertain economy, will university still offer the chance of a better life? With this in mind, The Independent on Sunday asked Britons across the country: is university worth it?

Will Diep

From Northamptonshire, dropped out of university to do a BT apprenticeship

"Leaving university was the best thing I did. I wasn't into the constant theory, I wanted to apply it. BT supplies the right training because they want you to be competent. I felt forced to go to university. My advice would be to find out what you're good at and exploit your strengths."

Anthony Seldon

Master of Wellington College

"University is not right for everybody. There are clearly many highly intelligent young people whose intelligence is not suited to the sat-nav A-level syllabus. It's not a coincidence that so many of our leading creative figures in Britain – in business and the arts – did not go to university."

Aaron Porter

President of the National Union of Students

"University is a tremendous opportunity. Despite difficult graduate employment at the moment, it's worth remembering that, on average, graduates earn £100,000 more over their working lifetime, compared with those who haven't been to university."

Mike Harris

Head of education and skills policy at the Institute of Directors

"Not having a degree isn't a barrier to becoming a director (two-fifths of directors don't have degrees), or to business success generally. Entrepreneurial ideas tend to come from experience of work, and that's fairly disconnected from getting a degree."

Anastasia de Waal

Deputy director of the think-tank Civitas

"There is far too much emphasis on going to university. Unfortunately, almost everybody who is successful at school now goes. As a result, the alternative routes are suffering and we are not getting the best people into non-graduate jobs."

John Morkus

Senior recruitment consultant at the Real Staffing Group

"If you want to go into management then you have to have a degree. You can still earn £40-£50k as a skilled labourer; it just depends what you want to do."

Steve Hall

Marine scientist at the National Oceanography Centre

"Apprenticeships, technical qualifications and real-world experience are more valuable to many jobs in seagoing and technical support. Organisations can recruit marine biologists and chemists fairly readily, but finding someone to weld titanium can be a real challenge."

Tim Campbell

Founder of the Bright Ideas Trust, a social enterprise for young entrepreneurs

"Going to university is an option, but that's what it's got to be. While we were growing up we were all told that we were going to university. Nowadays it's a lot more expensive; there are less grants and help. People have to think 'is it right for me?'"

Charlie Higson

Actor, comedian and author

"In my day university was a marvellous thing. I hope it still is. The big problem is finances. I think university was vital for me: I grew up in a village in the middle of Kent – I was desperate to see a bit more of the world."

Mark Hunter

MP for Cheadle and Lib Dem deputy chief whip

"Politics doesn't require a formal qualification; it's about passion, commitment and belief. I've enjoyed success without a university education. We should applaud those who have worked hard to get these grades but we shouldn't stigmatise those who choose not to go."

Elaine Jones

Graduate from London working in PR

"I think experience of the field you want to go into is just as important, and that can be overlooked. It's taken me four years to get into a PR job; if I'd been an intern while I was at college, I might have got it a lot quicker."

Toby Young

Journalist and author

"I had a pretty good experience at university. I went to three! I don't think university is necessarily a great career move, but it shouldn't be judged on that basis. The reason is to continue your education."

Nicola Wood

Media and culture student at Bath Spa University

"It's good to move away and not be smothered by your parents. University is not completely necessary – there are other career routes – but I still think it gives you that bit extra."

Tricia King

Director of external relations at Birkbeck College, London

"Most of our students are in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond. Perhaps they couldn't afford to study at 18, or weren't mature enough. Within a few years of graduating they get better jobs and earn more money. But it's also a chance to enrich life."

Konnie Huq

TV presenter, studied economics at Cambridge

"I thoroughly recommend it. It's good for your social life and to get an independent, self-sufficient streak. If there are two people up for a job and one of them has been to university and one hasn't, it's often the one that's been to university that will get the gig."

Chris Hickman

From Tenby, Wales, doing a pre-apprenticeship electrical engineering course

"I didn't see the point in going to university, I didn't have anything in mind that I wanted to do that would take me to uni, and I didn't have the money. College is fine for me. I can't really get a trade in uni and I never needed to go."

Rebecca Fuller, 22

Unemployed actress from east London

"Compared to other European countries we graduate quite early, and then we enter a saturated job market. It’s better to study for longer. I think it is worth it because, when you want to work in the arts, it’s pretty tough to get anywhere and a degree does help.”

Megan Crew, 16

Nursery worker from Bodmin, Cornwall

“I was going to go to university but now I can’t afford it. It’s hard with the Government cutting down the money. Originally, I wanted to become a primary school teacher, which you need a degree for, but I couldn’t afford it so I’m going straight to work in a nursery.”

Calum Whitaker, 20

From Calne, Wiltshire, is an apprentice for Honda

“I started an apprenticeship with Honda in June. It was either that or join the RAF – because, with how things are at the moment, I don’t see the point of getting into debt by going to uni and then not being guaranteed a job to pay it off.

Jilly Cooper, 73

Novelist and journalist

“I didn’t go to university; I tried for Oxford but was turned down at interview. The women there reminded me of boarding school: all big ladies in tweed. All I wanted to do was work on a newspaper. I learnt more about writing from the fireman at the docks than I could have from Oxford dons.”

Murray Curnow, 24

From London, skipped university and works for the music management firm Wildlife Entertainment

“I made a decision early on not to go to university, even before I got my results. I set a plan of what I wanted to do, which was ultimately to get into the music industry and do band management. I never really felt having a degree would benefit me and I feel I’ve been proved right.”

Juliet Stevenson, 53


“I’ve always been sad I didn’t go to university. I feel I’ve missed out on something, on the intensive reading and breadth of education. I had a place to go, a place I desperately wanted. I didn’t take it up because I went to Rada. I didn’t think I’d get two grants, to go to university and then drama school

Roger Black, 44

TV presenter and former Olympic athlete

“For me, university didn’t make any difference. I was lucky to find what I wanted to do. University wasn’t going to make me a faster runner. I would want my kids to go to university, but I wouldn’t force them. A degree for a degree’s sake isn’t worth it.”

Olivia Hows, 17

From Chichester, just picked up her AS results

“At my school they expect people to go to university – everyone goes, even if it’s just to do art. Both my parents and my brothers went, too; I have never expected not to go. I think it’s a really good idea. Everyone says it’s the best way to learn something and have fun.”