We should be honest about alternatives to university

Young people need to be empowered to make decisions about their futures


When stating my choice to go to university, I was surprised by the amount of people that made negative assumptions about what student life would entail; “all students do is go out and get drunk”. Other comments emphasised ‘the social side’ of university; the long holidays, lie-ins, and low contact hours as some kind of luxury that would be afforded to me. With a plethora of stereotypes existing in the public sphere – including laziness, a ‘party’ lifestyle, and recklessness with money – university students are too often associated with these negative generalisations, rather than with the value of education.

Whilst it’s true that some opt for this lifestyle, the majority are far more likely to be hard-working, concerned about money, and spend on average far more time working than socialising. Indeed, with 26% of students in part-time work to supplement their studies, it’s clear that students are not only worried about money, but actively seeking to improve their finances.

With George Osborne’s reforms to higher education last summer, including the scrapping of maintenance grants, as well as allowing top institutions to increase tuition fees, young people are facing an increasingly tough set of options when it comes to making the choice to go to university. Higher education is becoming more and more exclusive, and with the government estimating that 45% of graduates will never earn enough to pay off debts, comes an urgent need for each and every young person to make a more informed decision about their path into – or indeed out of – further education.

It’s the ‘why’ that I’ve realised is an obvious, yet often notably unasked question when it comes to higher education. As I was progressing through sixth form, it’s only looking back that I see that my teachers and head of sixth never asked why I was applying for university, but only where. As a relatively high-achieving student at a high-achieving state school, there was a level of assumption surrounding my future – a future which was pointed towards further study. And yet, whilst on paper university was the obvious choice for me, I was irritated by the lack of discussion surrounding alternative options.

It’s only from the outside world that I was asked, and begun to ask myself, these crucial questions. It surprised me how many sneering comments about my choice to go to university, have come not just from the older generation, but from people of my own age who have chosen not to. The main concern is always student debt. Is it really worth it? Do you really want that hanging over you? No, I don’t. If it were my choice education would be free and everyone would be able to achieve their academic potential, regardless of social or economic barriers that may stand in their way. But it isn’t. So I’m going to do my best in spite of that, because I recognise the importance of having a degree in today’s career market. To combat the idea that too many people are going to university today, we must also remember that more and more jobs require degrees now. At the end of last year a record number of graduates were in employment six months after leaving university, at 76.6 per cent, according to a report published by Prospects in 2015.

Ultimately, in an economic climate where Higher education is a commodity, and student debt is a reality, we need to be making sure that young people are both provided with and informed about the options for their career paths. Furthermore, with Osborne’s cuts to housing benefit for 18 to 21 year-olds, the pressure is on for young people to ‘earn or learn’. We need to be sparking these conversations about whether university is the right choice for us – and if not, addressing the options of placements, apprenticeships, vocational courses and full-time work.

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