We need to sell the dream of 'careers', not university...


Students are being ‘sold the dream’ of university. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recently released study of graduate earnings shows that many students have been mis-sold – their earnings don’t automatically increase if they go to university – it is completely dependent on what they study and where. 

Many schools push the university dream on to pupils and their parents. This may be because there are so few other options available to students, or because it’s easier than giving proper, wide reaching careers advice that takes each pupil’s needs into account.  Or even, dare I say it; because the high percentage of university places ‘won’ reflects better on their school, the net result is the same.  Many students find themselves on a pathway that isn’t right for them, and it could be one of the most costly errors of their life. 

Aspiration is the key ingredient to changing futures.  However the aspiration of university needs to be rooted in the realistic situation that too many graduates find themselves in – a competitive job market, where too many university qualifications outside the Russell group are used only to tick an entry box, if at all.

Of course university should be accessible to every student that proves they have the intellectual capabilities to benefit from it. However, equally, it must be a proactive choice that is made knowing all of the facts.  It is crucial for all students, but most particularly those from poorer backgrounds, to fully understand the implications of degree choices on their future earnings.  Yes, students should be encouraged to study those subjects they enjoy. However, they also need to be made aware of both the cost of university, and the potential ‘outcome’ – what the earning potential is for the types of the jobs they will be in the market for when they leave.  The situation is starkly clear - 

  • university graduates are left with massive debts (ranging from £30,000 to more than £45k)
  • whilst Medical graduates and Economics graduates are easily the highest earners ten years on from university, many other graduates – notably those who have studied creative arts – are, ten years later, actually worse off than students who didn’t go to university. 

These statistics need to be clearly laid out to students when they are making their Sixth Form choices.  It shouldn’t be left until they’ve finished their A Levels – they may already find themselves on an ‘academic’ path by then – to which University is a natural progression.   Indeed, too many young people choose this route, as realistically, what else are they going to do at 18? We need to give our young people a real choice – quality degrees that open future pathways, or entry into careers as school leavers. At the moment, for too many, they have neither.

Now is an absolutely key time for pupils to stop and think about their future, and to avoid being ‘mis-sold the dream’.   Year 10 students should be considering their career aspirations when they are making their Sixth Form choices.  There are a broad range of options – such as BTECs – which leaves the door firmly open to university – but can also provide a far more practical, career-focused qualification – making students more employable should they chose to go straight into the world of work, or take up an apprenticeship. 

To help them, going forward, perhaps, universities, and the courses they offer, should be labeled with a ‘buyer’s beware’ warning – akin to those seen on packets of food.  Some kind of traffic-light coding system – to indicate value for money, and a predicted financial return?  It would then be easier for students to make a conscious decision about their future, rather than being ‘mis-sold a dream’.