When asked by year 12 students, sixth formers for those like myself who still think in terms of old money, what they should study at university I reply with a set of questions. Specifically, why do you want to go? What do you want to get out of going? Would not going to university be better for you? These questions are frequently greeted with a degree of suspicion and bewilderment as if to say, don’t you want me to go to university! Before making this big decision we spend the next couple of sessions exploring answers.

So, why go to university? If you get it right undergraduate life can be so much fun. A period of personal growth in an environment that is more often than not supportive and allowances are made for, let us just say, less mature behaviour. Academically the university environment should provide the opportunity for intellectual exploration and growth coupled with the pursuit of knowledge in one or more subject area. The rigour of tackling academic challenges and the cross fertilisation of ideas support the development of competencies in problem-solving, researching, assimilation of information, and making inferences.

However, at least two important caveats come to mind; the course and the institute. My thinking in both regards is perhaps best explained by quoting George Orwell – Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

What do you want to get out of university is a somewhat more difficult question for the teenager to answer. If for no other reason than they have no first-hand experience. The principal argument presented to students to help them formulate an answer is simple – go to university to get a degree because a degree will make it easier to get a job. Whilst this statement contains truths, it can be regarded as somewhat economical. This argument masks the fact that the number of students at university between 1994 and 2013 has jumped by about 45% to 2.2million (HESA, Historical statistics). This increase is clearly unmatched by the increase in graduate type jobs, hence the headline ‘58% of UK graduates have ended up in non-graduate jobs’.

Consider also the following. For the eight years prior to 2015 overall graduate prospects (a guide to the employability on completion of the course) for a university such as Imperial College (London) remains around 88% compared with 54% for The University of Westminster. Even when comparing graduate prospects for two subjects from the same university the numbers continue to be insightful; comparing Biological Sciences and History at The University of Westminster the figures are 53% and 35% respectively (The Complete University Guide).

Interestingly in 2011 when the undergraduate fee was set to rise from £3,290 to a new base level of £6,000 – with a maximum of £9,000, the political position was that the top fee would only be charged in exceptional circumstances and by the top universities. The then Director General of the Russell Group of universities said that “It is crucial that our leading research-intensive universities be allowed to charge more than £6,000 in fees if they are to maintain their world-class status, give their students the first-rate education they deserve and continue to widen participation”. Today all universities charge £9,000.


The third question, would not going to university be better for you, presupposes that realistic alternatives such as apprenticeships are a plenty. Particularly ones that provide comparable graduate career development prospects with employers. A rather simplistic way of viewing this is to ask yet another question – how many present senior executives do not have at least one degree? It should be noted that this latter question is not should they have a degree but, do they. By a country mile the well know figures of Sir Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar and Michael Bell are the exceptions.

When Helen Mayson of the Institute of Leadership and Management asked should senior managers have a university degree, the CEO of Ashridge Business School, Kai Peter said yes. He argued that whilst experience acquired in ‘the school of hard knocks’ is undeniably valuable a formal education imparts explicit knowledge which can be used deliberately across a range of situations. Education is known to develop cognitive abilities, abstractive and reflective skills.

In contrast Rachel Kay (Thales Training & Consultancy) says an emphatic no. Her argument is that using identified core competencies organisations should focus on candidates that have the correct experience and skills rather than putting too much emphasis on a degree qualification.

Whether or not the headline “58% of UK graduates have ended up in non-graduate jobs…” becomes the norm is arguable. However what is difficult to reject is that the decision whether or not to go to university has become more about ‘employability’ and value for money compared to years gone by. Consequently, the combined choice of subject and university is central.

The numbers do not lie.