Rhiannon Harries: Drinking, daytime TV, dole..let's give university education the third degree

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Acute collective Freshers' Week hangovers should, by now, have lifted from UK universities. That, or they will have been replaced by the lower-level alcohol-induced morning fug with which many an undergraduate begins a large proportion of their days.

It's even possible that a few keen souls will have already got as far as using what The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference last week described as their "very expensive library tickets". For, according to chairman Andrew Grant, that is what a university degree amounts to these days – thousands of pounds' worth of debt and not a lot to show for it in the way of increased job prospects or earnings.

"There's been a confidence trick played on young people," said Grant. "The Government has used historical and partial data to justify the introduction of tuition fees on the grounds there is a premium on graduate earnings."

Grant is right in one respect; there are numerous reasons why, these days, a degree is not a golden ticket to a handsomely paid job for life – and not least the fact that such a thing no longer exists for anyone. But the idea that students are being inveigled into going to university solely by that promise seems rather doubtful.

The truth is that the vast majority of 18-year-olds don't have any watertight ideas about the exact long-term benefit of the degree they are about to embark on. Among an ever-growing tranche of the population, going to university is simply a social convention, beyond analysis or question.

Ironically, given the source of the criticism, where this problem ought really to be tackled is at school level, where getting into university is too often seen as an end not a means. When I made my own choices some time ago, our careers-advice sessions were underpinned by the assumption that we would all go to university, the question was simply finding the right one.

Teachers scoured UCAS guides to find courses for academically weaker students, then polished applications and coached interview technique. It was in good faith, but to not even discuss alternative paths was surely a mistake.

If you make decent use of the opportunities – educational, cultural, sporting, social – that three years of university offers, the value of a degree goes beyond economics. No, a BA in media studies won't automatically get you a well-paid job – few degrees will do that alone. But provided you have been made aware of that and the options beyond, if your interests remain so inclined, there are still plenty of decent reasons to do it. If watching Loose Women and Doctors feature among yours, however, I would suggest thinking again.

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