Alternatives to university

Caroline Jordan

Why rejecting a university degree could be the best thing you do

University is not for everybody. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement. For generations, it was just for the wealthy elite – and, for a long time, just for men. We all know that educational opportunities for women have historically lagged behind those for men and higher education was perhaps the last ceiling to be breached. By the time the first women were admitted to university in 1868 (nine of them to the University of London) some 40 per cent of the female population was illiterate and university participation levels saw just a fraction of the general public able to access degree level education. Slowly, gradually and then at a tumbling, breath-taking pace, access has widened, with a goal set to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education. That target was met in 2017, meaning half of all young people go to university or its equivalent. In 1980, less than 40 years previously, only 15 per cent of people stayed in education after school.

That’s a huge social change and in some respects to be welcomed. Many brilliant students are the first in their family to ever go to university. Vast swathes of young people from disadvantaged socio-economic groups who would never have been able to continue their studies are now able to – indeed, those are exactly the communities from which universities are now striving to attract applications. Every child should know that university is a possibility for them and that there are opportunities for them to continue learning, attain qualifications and advance in careers previously off limits.

There are, however, a few issues with such a high level of participation of education at this level. Employers seeking to differentiate between candidates will find that many more of them have a degree. It’s no longer a deciding factor. With so many entering the job market with a degree, it won’t suffice to secure a coveted position and therefore raises the bar even higher. This has the potential of putting those candidates who have made significant sacrifices to obtain their degrees back at a disadvantage – having sacrificed all else to get the coveted degree, they have not had time or opportunity to add to this with a further qualification, leadership commitment or other enriching activity. The hard-won degree is no longer enough.

It’s fair to say, too, that the university experience over the last three years has been patchy at best. During the pandemic, students were confined to their dorms, in some cases unable to access appropriate food and support. Face to face interaction was at a minimum, with the move to online learning leaving many feeling unsupported, out of touch and generally lacking in direction. While some universities doubtless quickly provided a high-quality online option and prioritised in person learning in subjects where it was most critical, the value in many cases was questionable. A survey by the Office for Students found that in 2021, satisfaction with everything from teaching, academic support and assessment to learning resources plummeted.

There is a simultaneous issue that makes it quite hard to reject the university route. With so many people getting a degree, can you afford not to have one? I believe that the answer is absolutely yes.

Not every career path is best served by a degree. The post-18 landscape today is breath-takingly exciting with a huge range of school leaver programmes and apprenticeships in a wide range of different subjects. If you have a clear idea of what you would like to do, there is the option to earn while you learn. These kind of programmes, offered by everyone from prestigious accounting firms such as EY to local businesses, provide the opportunity to gain real skills in real live situations and most offer the ability to gain relevant qualifications too – whether that be a Higher Level Apprenticeship (equivalent to a HND or Foundation Degree), a professional qualification or even a degree. The term apprenticeship can conjure up images of people learning trades – and there are fantastic opportunities there too which can lead to highly successful careers in, for example, construction – but the scope is far wider than this. Fascinated by Formula 1 and a career in the motorsports industry? How about an apprenticeship as a mechanic, composite engineer or machinist. Interested in the growing world of cyber security? There’s an apprenticeship for that too. As an apprentice or on a school leaver programme, you will be paid a competitive salary as opposed to paying out thousands in university fees. Your employer will likely cover your training costs too.

That’s not all. Once you are in the door, you are in the door. You are gaining valuable work experience and skills and in most cases, your entry level position means that there is huge scope for growth and development. You will know the job; the employers will know you and you will have had several years to make an impression, to demonstrate your potential and convince them to continue to invest in you.

This isn’t a soft option, a route for the less academic. There is serious, academic challenge to be had by taking this route and few downsides. A higher proportion of those completing apprenticeships have full-time jobs at the end of it, compared to graduates, with as many as 65 per cent of apprentices remaining in full-time work. The employment statistics for degrees vary widely dependent on course and institution – but few would hit this high. It doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing greater career earnings for more money now, either. Modelling conducted by the Boston Consulting Group in 2015 indicates that Higher Level Apprenticeships result in greater lifetime earnings than graduates of non Russell Group universities. Better a really fantastic school leaver programme than a somewhat lacklustre degree.

The vast majority of our girls continue to opt for university degrees and for most, it is the right course for them. If you wish to be a doctor, a lawyer, an architect or a teacher you will need to follow the more traditional route. There are professions where the deep dive into education and research is necessary and equally there are many who thrive in a university setting. But it’s not the only way to learn nor the only career path and the alternatives are much more inviting than they once were. If you consider some of the most successful people in the UK today, many of them achieved that success without a degree behind them. Entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar, for example, chef and television personality Jamie Oliver or legendary fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Alternatives to university are becoming increasingly popular among our student body, with two girls joining EY’s highly competitive school leaver programme, another to Leith’s School of Food and Wine and another accepted to train as a Norland Nanny – with the most experienced London-based nannies commanding salaries in excess of £70,000 this is not to be sniffed at! Our job now is to open girls’ eyes to the possibilities and help them consider whether the university route is best for them. With so many options out there, it pays – quite literally – to investigate what will best serve your future goals.