Is university still a good investment for your job prospects?

July 10, 2016

finance, lifestyle


University fees are on the increase in the UK, with some English universities now charging as much as £9000 for tuition.

Students and educators across the country have expressed their concern over these increases, worrying that the higher cost will exclude many prospective students from pursuing a degree – and new figures suggest that their concerns may be well-grounded.

Graduates in hats and gowns at a ceremony

Image via Tulane Public Relations on Flickr

It was reported today that as of the end of June 2016, applications for places on courses commencing in Autumn 2016 are down by 7.7% (according to the Guardian) and 8.9% (according to the BBC) across the UK. England sees the sharpest drop, with 10% fewer applicants than this time last year, while Northern Ireland is down by 5%, Wales by 3% and Scotland by just 2%.

At first glance these figures suggest that prospective students are being put off by the increased tuition fees, but of course there is some debate over how best to interpret the statistics, and even whether such a drop is necessarily to be seen as a bad thing.

For instance, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, seems to take an optimistic view of the situation. She is reported as saying:

 ”These figures confirm that the fall in applications is far less dramatic than some were predicting for this year. We must remember that the numbers here relate to applicants, not places. There will still be considerably more people applying to university this summer than there are available places.”

This massive wave of applicants reflects the long-held belief that a university degree is a passport to a better future.

In years past, when there were fewer graduates and more jobs, this certainly was the case. But as most western economies continue to flounder and more and more students emerge onto the job market only to find there is no employment for them, many are questioning the value of the traditional university degree – especially those in subjects from the arts and humanities that may not have direct relevance for many jobs.

There was less of a drop (only about 3%) in applications from 18-year-olds just leaving school than from older students aged 19 and up (a 12% decrease).

While some unemployed people in their twenties may initially have tried to wait out the recession by further developing their education and skills, this decrease in applicants may indicate that fewer young people view higher education as a means to better employment prospects and are no longer willing to make the commitment in terms of time and expense.

This tendency would contradict Universities Minister David Willetts’ belief that “people continue to understand that university remains a good long term investment for their future.”

However, there is still some anecdotal evidence that employers still look at university degrees as a means of winnowing down the vast number of applicants they receive for each advertised job. In some cases it may give applicants an edge, as undergraduate degrees at least have become so common nowadays that anyone without one may be automatically disqualified in favour of more educated peers.

It is also unclear how many potential students who decide against university are furthering their prospects in other ways, such as undertaking training in a trade. Some would argue that redirecting young people away from traditional universities (which are already oversubscribed) and into other avenues where there are shortages in fact redresses a bigger imbalance, and may in fact improve the individual’s job prospects in the long run.

Similarly, it is not clear whether more affluent students are also pursuing other options, such as studying abroad or taking a gap year – which could explain why there was a bigger drop in applications from affluent areas than from poorer segments of the population – a rather counterintuitive result. (Although it must be remembered that poorer students are still underrepresented in the university system as a whole.)

What do you think – are university degrees still a good investment? Is the drop in application numbers caused by rising fees, or by people deciding other options might be better?


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