Degree or no degree: that is the question ?

We are an odd country: no sooner than we decided that it was all “education, education, education” and youngsters were being sold the dream of a degree as a passport to a secure future and a sign of an advanced nation competing on the world stage than we changed our minds and now apprenticeships are all the rage. With some employers apparently offering graduate level salaries to school leavers it has all left me very confused and I am (IMHO) at least in theory better placed than many to try and make sense of it all. So if I am struggling what hope does an 18 year old have?

So many influencers in the debate of course have agendas (hidden or otherwise), not to mention their own prejudices (overt or well hidden, even from themselves) so it is difficult to know who to look to for advice and I can’t claim to be wholly even handed.

What I see in my job is a) the global competition from astonishingly well qualified people, products of nations which attach huge value to education b) the value that most UK employers place on bright people. Employers see academic achievement as a good indication of intelligence, of a person’s trained use of intelligence and also of a level of ambition, tenacity and drive. I also believe, from thirty years’ experience, that graduates, particularly those who leave home to go to University, are often more rounded and more confident in the workplace, even many years later. I make no attempt to prove causality, even if implied!

What however is also clear is that many degrees are pretty worthless, not only in terms of ROI but also with regard to any obvious point or added value at all. Have you read the page after page of available places in UCAS Clearing in the papers? The only possible question is why would you even think of wasting time and money on those courses in those places? I’m sorry if that offends but it’s true.

So here’s my view:

  • Bright youngsters, with good grades should definitely be very very strongly encouraged to go to a good University. Of course these are just the candidates the small number of very highly paid apprenticeship schemes are also after but I think they should resist that temptation.
  • Those with middling grades should think very carefully about the options: if they have a passion for a subject or are really sold on University or feel they haven’t reached their academic potential and need a second chance then fine. But it they are undecided or feel perhaps they want to do a vocational degree e.g. Business Studies then they should also actively consider some form of apprenticeship.
  • 18 years olds with poor grades, many of whom have in recent years gone on to get a poor degree, should try hard to get a foot on the career ladder with an apprenticeship or other training scheme. The only exception to the rule might be if there is a vocational degree course in a field they are very interested in they can get on to that is highly regarded in its field and has a good record of employment at the end of it.