Miércoles 12 de Noviembre de 2008, Ip nº 254

Does a degree really set you up for life?
Por Phil Hogan, Hermione Hoby, Ally Carnwath, Imogen Carter and Ed Parshotam

For generations the prevailing wisdom has been the same: get a good degree and you're set for life. But is that true in 2008? With the recession biting, education debt soaring and the graduate job pool shrinking, are there better ways to get ahead?

In the haste to bundle one's difficult teenagers off to university, it can easily slip your mind to ask them if they actually want to go. For those of us who have suffered the earache of marching our children at gunpoint through A-levels, this doesn't seem the time to entertain doubts that they might be unsuited to an academic environment. They have to go, and that's it. What else is there?

I used to warn my eldest son - who is still recovering from his freshers' fortnight - that the choice was swotting for exams or wasting his life in a dead-end job. The joke of course is that there aren't enough dead-end jobs to go round. When I left school at 16 in the early Seventies, our town offered a variety of unskilled employment - the sauce factory, the dyeworks, the bins - while three O-levels could get you a job as the managing director of the Yorkshire Bank. No one knew anyone with a degree.

We don't have factories now, and Britain has long been banging the drum for the benefits of hard study. Today there are twice as many 25-year-olds with degrees than there were 18-year-olds with A-levels in the Sixties. Even I have a degree, having gone back to school in the Eighties as a 'mature' student of 27. Higher education took an exciting turn in 1993 when the polys were transformed into universities, gathering speed in 2000 when Tony Blair declared his aim of turning half of all under-30s into graduates by 2010. Would under-achievers from poorer backgrounds be lured by the promise of lifetime earnings at £400,000 above those without degrees? Perhaps 50 per cent seemed possible then, with the figure already at 39.2 per cent, but by last year it had only crept up to 39.8. The ambition remains though. The new higher education minister, David Lammy, says: 'Labour has been working tirelessly to raise aspirations in communities like mine in Tottenham, where not many young people grow up thinking university is for them. Our hard work is paying off - over 50 per cent of young people from every social class say they want to go to university. So our target is a way of showing our determination to make their dreams a reality. The Tories think the trouble with higher education is that too many of other people's kids go to university these days.'

And they do - there are three times more students today (about 2.4m) than in the early Eighties, though snipers are quick to point out that many of them are attracted to golf studies and surfing theory. To be fair, in the 19th century they made the same jibes about history, but it is the sort of thing that gets people wondering whether the race to 'widen participation' is such a great idea.

It is vexed at all ends. Students - fearful of piling up debt and ending up with a 'McJob' - complain about poor standards of teaching, tutors complain about poor standards of student literacy, and everybody else complains about the gold standard of A-levels turning into chocolate coins, and that what Britain really needs is more plumbers. Which is true. And not just plumbers. Many talented school leavers are waving goodbye to academia and diving straight into hands-on training or setting up in business, helped by energetic charitable foundations such as Young Enterprise and Edge, whose chairman Gary Hawkes says: 'Our work to combat the perception that vocational and practical learning is a second-class option is crucial to the well-being of our future generations, and to our country's economic vitality.'

For those less bullish about their motor skills and entrepreneurial nous, university is still the place to spend your A-levels - somewhere to turn raw, binge-drinking joie de vivre into something noble and fine. Many would add 'marketable' to that, though I am still glued to the idea of education for the adventure of it, on the grounds that thinking long and hard for three years, even about surfing, might teach you how to think in general. And where better to grow up, smoke, learn to cook and contract an unpleasant disease than 100 miles from home? As Prof Edward Acton, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, says: 'Going to university is the fastest, most agreeable way to gain confidence and enhance one's creativity. A society rich in critically thinking graduates is best equipped to build and sustain the good life.'

Yet all is not well. The drop-out rate is 22 per cent, despite the government pumping £800m into schemes designed to plug the leak. For these escapees (they are more likely to be at Bolton and Sunderland than Oxford or Cambridge), something has gone wrong. And current job prospects are not great, with traineeships dwindling, recruitment moribund, banking in tatters. Where, you ask, is your £400,000 coming from? Where do you go from here? Back to your parents' house? No one wants that.

Polly Stevenson: The schoolgirl rebel

"I'd rather work and travel"

Sees a degree just for the sake of it as a waste of money, and intends to be surfing in Australia while her peers are swotting

At her fee-paying school in Essex, 17-year-old Polly Stevenson's attitude to university is not one shared by her peers or teachers. She explains: 'I don't want to go and just do a random degree - I want it to count towards something I want to do when I'm older. It seems a big waste of money if I don't know what I'm going to do with it.' But cost, she's found, isn't something teachers talk about. 'My school's attitude is ridiculous. They're basically like: "Go to university or you don't have a life." Teachers just want us to go because it looks good for the school. I don't think they really care what we do as long as it makes the school look good.'

Out of her year group of more than 100 girls, almost all are going to university but Polly's bucking the trend with plans to do a lifeguard qualification and then work for an activity holiday company abroad. 'I've been saving up for years and years, and I've got my heart set on Australia - that's the first place I'm going to go as soon as I've got the money.' She jokes that she'll be a tanned goddess, surfing to work while her friends are stuck here writing essays and getting into debt. Most of them, she complains, 'don't even think about the cost of university; they just have no concept of money because lots of them are quite well off. It's really annoying because I've worked since I was 14 and I'm quite careful with my money.'

Her first job was a paper round. While studying for GCSEs she also took on weekend shifts in a bar and part-time work in a high street shop. With three jobs on the go she admits: 'I pretty much died. My teachers weren't happy about it.' Her parents' attitude was different: 'They were really keen on me getting a job because I have to pay for so many things myself.' Her mother is a social worker and her father is a carpenter: 'They support me as much as they can but my dad wants to retire and hasn't been working as much so we don't have loads of money at the moment.' It's understandable then, that the cost of university strikes her as exorbitant: 'I definitely think university's too expensive - it's thousands and thousands of pounds. I think it's ridiculous that people build up these massive debts and still have them when they're 30.'

Tom Mursell: The refusenik

"A degree is no longer a golden ticket to a good job"

Seeing graduates stacking shelves led Tom to change direction. Now he runs a jobs website called notgoingtouni.co.uk

Like most middle-class teenagers, Tom Mursell, 19, had always assumed he'd go to university after A-levels. He won a place at his first choice, Bournemouth, to study law. 'I had my heart set on that until just before I had to decide whether I was going or not,' he says. 'I really left it right up to the last minute because I wasn't sure.' A moment of realisation in Sainsbury's proved the cataylst for his decision not to go. 'All through college I was working stacking shelves. Then one day I realised that there were graduates doing the same job as me, not using their degree.'

Having decided to take a year out, and resenting 'shocking career advice, almost all of it focused on university', he began to have an idea for a website inspired by his own experiences. From a laptop at his kitchen table in Southampton he started work on notgoingtouni.co.uk as a hobby. Now, with an investor on board and the site set to launch fully in a few months, it's a full-time job. Although Tom's parents - both graduates - were happy about him not going to university, Tom acknowledges that 'a lot of people, especially of my parents' generation, think a degree's a golden ticket to employment. That's not necessarily the case any more though.'

The website is: 'A split between careers adviser and job advertisements - a sort of non-graduate milkround, that's our mission.' Everything suggests that now is a perfect time for such a mission. He plans to become an online entrepreneur, and Channel 4 is following him for a documentary series.

Government targets of 50 per cent of young people in higher education by 2010 are, in his words, 'ridiculous, especially now, with the higher debts and the economic crisis that we're in.

'It's not right to be pushing so many people towards university.'

Jack Forsdike: The disappointed graduate

"All my study is only useful for pub quizzes"

Graduated in film studies from Sheffield Hallam University in May. Now works for a security firm, providing stewarding at festivals and events

After three years and thousands of pounds in tuition fees, Jack Forsdike can only think of one area in which he has benefited from his degree. 'All I can use the information for are trivial things,' he says. ' It's the kind of information that comes up in pub quizzes.'

When he left school in 2004 he did not originally plan to go to university. But having been unable to break into a career with the police, he applied through clearing for a place at Sheffield Hallam a year later. He was accepted on a course entitled 'Society in Cities,' which he hoped would help him reapply to the police, but soon discovered it was not sociology-based, and switched to film studies.

'It was a topic I felt was going to hold my interest for three years as opposed to something that I wouldn't feel motivated to go to university [each day] and do.'

He enjoyed his studies but as the course progressed began to worry it was not equipping him with skills he'd be able to use after university. 'There was an ongoing catching-up on 100 years of film but it didn't seem applicable in any other area. It started to make me think: how is this going to help set me apart from people who I'm going to be up against when applying for work?'

After graduating, the 22-year-old found employers were unimpressed by his qualification and unconvinced by the skills he had picked up during his degree. 'You're always going to get some people thinking it's a Mickey Mouse degree. But at school [you're told], you get a degree, and no matter what you get it in, it shows an employer you have spent a long time in education'.

'It seems like employers don't see it that way. It's either, you've got a degree in the wrong thing or you are lacking experience.'

He now finds himself in exactly the same position he was four years ago, biding his time in temporary work while waiting for South Yorkshire police to recruit again. 'It would have been better if I hadn't gone to university,' he says. 'There's a lot of pressure on people to go who aren't going to benefit from it. I've finished university and I'm seeing friends starting again at the bottom.


Uni by numbers: Facts and figures

£3,145 - Maximum annual tuition fee contribution for a British student.

£9,000 - Median cost of a classroom-based undergraduate degree per annum for international students.

£10,700 - Median cost of a laboratory or workshop-based undergraduate degree per annum for international students.

54% of current students are concerned about debt.

41% of current students are given or lent money by friends or family to survive at university. Of them, 26% get regular amounts throughout the term.

£19,000 - Median starting salary for a new graduate in full-time employment.

£21,500 - Projected debt for students starting a degree in 2008.

£14,044 - The average debt that students at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London accrue each year, the highest for any higher education institute in Britain.

£1,184 - The average debt that students at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen accrue each year, the lowest for any higher education institute.

35% of students hold a term-time job. 51% of students work during the holidays.

109 - Universities in the UK.

0.8% The UK's public expenditure on higher education as a percentage of GDP. At 1.8% Denmark spends the most.

80% of UK applicants successfully gained university places through Ucas in 2007.

46% Increase in students studying undergraduate degrees in the UK since 1994-95.

113,685 - full-time academic staff at UK higher education institutes.

37% are female.

  09/11/2008. The Observer.


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