Why getting a degree is probably not the best option any more

This week is National Apprenticeships Week in the UK (#NAW2016). Woohoo!

We have certainly come some way when it comes to apprenticeships. And yet – at the secondary school I went to (which I left almost 9 years ago – scary!), it was completely out of the question to consider any other route other than university.

Going to a prestigious university and doing a “decent” degree, culminating in that smiling photograph dressed in graduate robes and beaming parents on either side, feels like a rite of passage for many young people today.

"We're so proud of you, son!" (Credit: Mango Productions/Corbis)
“We’re so proud of you, son!” (Credit: Mango Productions/Corbis)
There is so much pressure to go to university, for a whole host of reasons. Not least because that is what the aspiration is, and it is often felt from all directions – school, parents, society.We are told this:

“University = Success”

And yet, in 2016, this is a dangerous message to promote. Whilst I didn’t come out of university with a degree myself (ironically, I am now studying a Masters), I witnessed how former school-friends (graduating in 2010) came out of university to a world they were not expecting, and seen how countless others graduating with top grades from Russell Group universities have struggled to find any semblance of a job in the field they were aiming for – or even one that they weren’t.

And I’m talking Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell-Group-University graduates, with 1st and 2:1s here, just to put things into context.

What the hell is going on?!

Back in 1965, things were different. Around 5% of the UK population went to university and so, no matter which university you went to or what you studied, this happened:

University –> Job for life

Fast forward to 2016, and university –> job for life has gradually gone from pretty well guaranteed to almost the complete opposite (indeed, the “job for life” is an outdated concept too – we have gone from that to “several jobs over a lifetime” and are approaching “various different jobs at any one point in time” – especially with the rise of the freelance economy and all indicators estimating a more self-driven, autonomous future of work. I’ll save that for another article).

The market is completely flooded. The value of a degree has, without a doubt, been reduced – which is especially ironic, seeing as the price has risen exponentially. (£9,000 a year in fees alone plus living costs amounts to the average young person being in excess of £44,000* or so of debt by the time they’ve graduated).

Yes, you get a student loan and, yes, the idea is that you start working and begin paying this off slowly over your working years. But the idea was that the degree would give you entry into work. Isn’t that what you are paying for – the bottom line?
“Being a graduate is now not a free pass to graduate employment”  – Mary Curnock-Cook, Chief Executive at UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service)

And that’s putting it mildly.

Another great irony in all of this? Employers are now asking graduates:

“Where is your work experience? That’s what we need…” 

Things have around full circle. Back in the day, apprenticeships were seen as respectable and noble. In fact, as this article describes, the apprenticeship was once the go-to way to prepare yourself for a career.

It is a great shame that apprenticeships are considered lesser than degrees, when the truth is that they hold so much value.

School and parents need educating here – in British Asian society, the notion of not going to university and doing an apprenticeship would likely cause upset and embarrassment; for a parent, it is seen to imply your son or daughter isn’t intelligent enough to go to university, that you had somehow failed them in some way.

(Another irony – this article is full of them – is that doctors, considered by many to be one of the most high-status, prestigious and sought-after careers, essentially do apprenticeships following completion of their medical degree by way of their two Foundation years (F1 & F2); every medic has to complete these two years at a minimum, before being able to practice as a qualified medical professional).

Also, the fact is, with the exception of the medical (and dental) professions where a degree is a necessity, in 99% of other cases, a degree is merely supposed to provide you with the foot in the door (along with all of those other things – independence, freedom, self-learning, etcetera – which university does enable to some extent but, I would argue, can also be found in other, less expensive ways; e.g. travelling).

The fact is – as soon as you have gotten your foot in the door, no one really cares what your educational background is.

Certainly a couple of years in, after which your graduate scheme (if you are on one) expires,
no one actually cares whether you have a degree or not. (Not unless you’re counting great aunt Bessie, who will always be ever so proud of you and will therefore care IMMENSELY).

Despite all of this, so often we hear about going down the “safe route”, and “having a degree to fall back on”.

To address this, firstly, in the 21st century world that we live in today, where you can showcase your creations through LinkedIn, a personal website, or a blog, for example, you can demonstrate your value in fair more effective ways than “2:1 in [insert degree subject here] from [insert Russell Group University here]”. And there are far fewer people actually showcasing their work in these ways (or, it should be said, doing the work in the first place).

Look at what Nina did to circumvent the tedious process of applying to a job at airbnb, along with the masses. Raghav Haran also gives some great examples of this. But these instances are a rarity, and provide an unbelievable, untapped resource(s) for getting ahead of the crowd and tangibly showing who you are and what you have done.

At the same time, leading firms such as E&Y, PwC and Penguin Random House are reducing their graduate intake numbers, and increasing their school-leaver numbers, for a whole host of reasons. It’s clear that firms are questioning the value of a degree themselves, and even realising that young people are more adaptable straight out of school.

Choosing an apprenticeship, or other form of work-based learning, is not only a valuable experience in and of itself, but also a debt-free one – due to the fact that you earn whilst you learn.

Instead of dragging yourself to lectures, continuing the traditional educational route where you learn to merely exams, at a cost of £27,000 plus the rest – why not get real-world skills and without the debt?

Compared to a graduate joining a firm at the age of 21, as a school-leaver joining the same firm aged 18, you will be 3 years ahead in terms of your career, and thus at an advantage already – and not shackled by the debt.

Why would you not consider this as an option?

All of this leads to one profound statement:

Whereas a degree used to be the precious commodity, actual experience in the working world has taken it’s place.

In 10 years time, perhaps the statement “go off and get some work experience to fall back on” will become the saying instead of the one that exists currently.

*Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)

This article originally appeared here, and was also featured on Medium.

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