Sixth formers in England looking at the state of higher education, as they plan what to do post A-levels next summer, might be forgiven for thinking that universities are at a low ebb. A funding squeeze because of the falling value of tuition fees, disruption due to long-running industrial action, and rows over free speech and so-called “low-value” degrees, mean much of the media coverage has been negative.
Talk to current students and recent graduates however, and the picture is different. There are difficulties – none greater than the cost of living crisis – but there are also multiple hidden gains. One enthusiastic student, just back from a year abroad as part of her degree, says: “I’m only realising this now I’m home, but I worked out so much about myself and my place in the world while studying there. I did things I never thought myself capable of … It awoke so much in me and solidified a lot of my interests and life ambitions.”
It’s not all about the course or the individual university, or the improved job and earnings prospects, though all these things matter. It can also be an opportunity to change direction, learn new skills which cannot be measured by assessment and shape your destiny in a way you might not have previously imagined.
“University is an amazing arena to perfect your people skills. Meeting new people, building friendships over extended periods of time,” says Henry Lucas, 22, a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham. “It’s also one of the only small windows you might get in your early years to start completely fresh. If you want, you can completely flip the script.”
Talk to higher education experts, and they too paint a more positive picture. If the over-arching question facing year 13s is – is it still worth going to university? – then the answer from Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is an emphatic “Yes, definitely. All the evidence for decades has shown that degrees act as an insurance policy against unemployment. They give you a much wider choice of roles in the labour market.”
He acknowledges the cost of living crisis is hitting students, but notes that many were responding by getting a part-time job – 55% according to a recent survey. Hillman adds that students need to have “tricky” conversations with their parents before applying. “They need to make sure their parents know what the government is expecting them to contribute, so parents have time to prepare.”
Can I afford it?
Changes to student loans which come into force from September and will extend repayments from 30 to 40 years, as well as reducing the threshold at which repayments begin, won’t put most people off, Hillman thinks. “Most people who go to university will be better off than if they’d never gone, even after the loan repayments have been made.”
Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert is more concerned however. “The scale of change in September 2023 seems to have slipped under the radar,” he warned earlier this year, adding that it will “increase the cost [of university] by over 50% for many typical graduates and double it for a few”.
Lucas is not bothered by the cost of his loan. “I’m viewing it as a tax rather than a debt. I do feel frustrated though that I paid a full £9,250 in course fees during my first year. I had two in-person seminars and that was it.”
Contact hours do vary hugely depending on the course, so this is worth researching. Hillman says information is not as easily available as it should be. “I would urge applicants to ask those questions on open days, or message boards where you can communicate with existing students. It’s also true that higher education is partly about independent learning. It’s not meant to be ‘big school’.”
Follow your passions
This might also leave you feeling tempted by Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which tend to have more contact hours than arts and humanities courses. The importance of these subjects has also been stressed in government rhetoric – yet experts say students should pursue their interests and passions.
“It’s really important that young people follow their hearts as well as their heads,” says Hillman, “because nobody knows what the labour market is going to look like. But if we were to have a rough guess, actually all the human skills the humanities deliver are probably the things that AI and computers find hard to replicate. Employers very often snap up humanities graduates, because they [value] people who can think creatively, can make connections, can write well.”
He adds: “Young people should remember – what are they passionate about? What are they going to be happy to do for the next few decades? What excites them? That really matters too.”
Industrial action may also be worrying some young people, particularly after the University and College Union (UCU) announced it plans further strikes by university staff in September. Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, which speaks for 142 universities, claimed that just 2% of the total student population was affected by the UCU’s assessment boycott. “It is a small proportion, so for those students starting a new university programme this year, and thinking about it for next year, I think it’s important to put it in context.”
Stern adds that there is still a good return on investment from going to university. She cites research which shows that men will be £130,000 better off on average by going to university after taxes and student loan repayments, while for women, this figure is £100,000.
Learning is a skill
“It’s also this opportunity to acquire what I think is the most important skill a human being can have at this time in our history, which is the ability to learn and adapt and acquire new skills. The better you are able to change and grow, the more able you are likely to be to adjust as the labour market changes around us,” she says.
It’s worth thinking about the longer-term benefits because, as Chloe Field, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, points out: “The current situation for students is pretty much at rock bottom right now. The big issues are 100% rent, and industrial action was quite hard on students (though the NUS supports the UCU). I had a mixed experience – some parts were really amazing. I met so many like-minded people. But it was difficult – there were feelings of loneliness sometimes and then also the pressures on finances. The maintenance loan doesn’t even scratch the surface.”
Location, location, location
Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of the university admissions service Ucas, is concerned about accommodation costs and shortages for new students, especially those who apply later or during clearing. There is such huge pressure on beds in some cities that students are being put up miles away, which can compromise their university experience. She recommended that students prioritise institutions which give accommodation guarantees.
She adds: “The whole experience has got slightly less affordable so it’s got to be a very deliberate and considered decision to go to university. At the end, if you’ve decided that’s what you want to do, then I think it’s worth it. If you go into it in a half-hearted way, there are a few headwinds that might just tip it from being a great experience into something you maybe wish you hadn’t done.”
Some of the best advice about university comes from those closest to it – students themselves. From our student just back from her travels: “Go on a year abroad if you have the chance – be as adventurous as possible, as you will likely gain more from travelling than in lectures.”
Lucas, who has already graduated, says: “You do not need to know exactly what to study. It doesn’t have to be your burning desire, your ultimate passion.”
And finally, from another graduate: “Enjoy the freedom to do whatever you want to do. The only cardinal rule is to always rinse your bowl after having Weetabix.”
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