Why it’s worth going to university

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This blog is the personal opinion of our editor, David Ellis.

More often than is probably sensible, but less often than I’d like, people ask for my opinion on certain things. In my professional life – I do, of course, use the term ‘professional’ loosely – one matter is brought up time over: is university worth it?

It’s a simple enough question. Not too many syllables. Could be asked whilst slightly whiffled. The answer requires a little more consideration, though, and it’s a subject I’ve written on before, usually for The Daily Telegraph, and without reticence: ‘Stop saying degrees a waste of £50,000 – they’re not.’, ‘The right degree is always worth it’, ‘Are too many people going to university?’, ‘Degrees to not guarantee jobs – people do.

The detectives amongst you will have deduced I staunchly support the idea of a university education for those who want it. The plain but important caveat is that not every course is right for everyone, and not everyone is right for every course. Institution and subject choice are of paramount importance and to ‘study anything going’ is unlikely to end with welcome results. Attending university is a choice, and that choice has nothing to do with anybody else – while what comes below in this piece may help inform your decision, it is not meant to persuade. Choices and decisions people make about their future are no concern of mine, nor should they be.

Many critics of university are extremely vocal and, perhaps because of their constant shouting, seem remarkably deaf to opposing ideas. My question for those loudly belittling university and calling for fewer and fewer to go is simply this: who are you to cast aspersions on somebody else’s educational choice – and why?!

The benefits of university can be seen in monetary terms and otherwise. Not only does going entitle you to compete on university challenge, but curiously enough, I’m of the opinion that the purpose of higher education is to, well, educate. I think people pursuing something they love is worthy of celebration, so though the fiscal advantages are clear, much of the other points are, to me at least, more pertinent.

The financial benefits of university

  • You will have read of the tuition fees as a monster cost. Certainly, £9,000 is nothing to look over lightly, but it is not an upfront cost and for many, it’s not a cost which will have to ever be met at all. The repayments work as a kind of ‘graduate tax’ – once a graduate begins to earn over £21,000 a year, they pay 9% of anything in their salary over that figure. Sound complicated? It’s not: say your first job pays £22k. You owe 9% off £1000 (as it is £1000 more than £21k). That works out at £7.50 a month – hardly arduous.
  • Though the debt can last a lifetime, whatever isn’t paid off after thirty years is wiped. In fact, 45% of the entire student loan is predicated to be swallowed by the government. This is because many will pay back some of their loan, but not all.
  • The money you pay for university can be thought of as an investment not only in your education and your mind, but in cold hard future cash. For 80% of graduates, going to university means you’ll earn more than if you’d left with just A-levels alone.
  • In fact, according to BIS (the department for business, innovation and skills), graduates earn up to:
    £168,000 more over a lifetime, if the graduate is male and;
    £252,000 more over a lifetime, if the graduate is female.
  • This is a net figure and accounts for the time spent at university when a school-leaver could be earning in a job. Full disclosure: The figure also is weighted for those who achieve 2:1s and above – so put the effort in! Graduates with 2:2s tend to earn less – by as much as 80k over a lifetime – but still more than non-graduates.
  • Bluntly, then, for most people, having a degree means they’ll be richer.
  • Furthermore, universities are good for us all: over 2011/12, they contributed some £73 billion to the UK economy, up from £59 billion during 2008/09. Such large numbers mean higher education contributed more to our economy than basic pharmaceuticals, air transport, legal services, computer manufacturing and advertising.
  • In fact, despite the fact student debt is often wiped by the government, graduates aren’t a drain on the country. Quite the opposite: graduates earn the treasury £94,000 over a lifetime – again, this is the net benefit for the exchequer benefit for financing a degree. That money, of course, flows into public services.
  • If earning your degree is simply about finding a job at the end of it – and for many, it is- it’s easy to listen to critics of university who pounce on statistics of unemployed graduates as evidence that a degree does nothing and means nothing. To me, that rather misses the obvious, which is to say that even for graduates, even for those with the best education, the job market is combative and barbarous. But to place the blame in youth unemployment on universities is fallacious logic.
  • And while it would be charming if everyone could simply score whichever job they wanted, it’s not how things go. Many employers demand a degree, for any position, and will toss aside those applications without one. Sure, it may seem a crude, arbitrary reason to do so, but it’s what happens. Having a degree means having more choice: the ability to choose from a much broader spectrum of job openings.

Other benefits of university

When people say, ‘so, what’s the value of university’, the question alone carries a certain implicit jeering. But so what? Though the below is intangible, it doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

  • Studying a subject you love and pursuing a passion is nothing to be embarrassed about - and if the end result is more freedom in the job market, this only means one stands a better chance of ending up in a job they don’t hate. When it can be confidently asserted most of us spend more time with our colleagues than our loved ones, this adds a real benefit.
  • University is a time to grow up, learn about yourself and solidify your choices. It helps you find out what makes you tick, what inspires you to learn, how you learn, why you want to. It lets you discover your strengths and your weaknesses – and it tests where your commitments lie. All of these things are invaluable in the working world: if you know how best you work, and what will make you get up in the morning, you’re all the more likely to be a better, more efficient, happier employee.
  • University lets you learn in a hundred different ways: you can try new things, pop into guest lectures, meet new people and grow into yourself a little better. You may even pin down what you want to do – at 18, it’s awfully difficult to decide sensibly what you’d like to do with the entirety of your life. At 21, or whenever you graduate, it isn’t much easier, but those three years of thinking can make all the difference - and you may, at least, have learned what you don't like.
  • Universities aren’t made up of libraries or textbooks or online resource centres. They’re about teaching and learning, which means they’re about people. The only way the brain is pushed and excels if it is stimulated: at university, you will be surrounded by bright, interesting minds – not just those of your classmates (but remember them – useful contacts in the future), but the expertise of your lecturers. Learning isn’t some horrible disease which should have died out in the 14th century: take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to you.
  • Almost every degree instils in its students good research skills, improved writing skills, practical experience of time management and pressure. It does not guarantee success – that alone is down to the individual, but it’s a fantastic place to start from.
  • Then, of course, there is what's known as 'the university experience' – of living alone, of maturing, of going out and seeing new things, of trying new things. I won't dwell on this, as your imagination can do the work, but life won’t be so unstructured or encouraging again - do take advantage. Perhaps you've heard people say they wouldn't do university again - but ask them if they'd live their life without having done it in the first instance.