With fees and debt climbing and the graduate job market tightening, Clemence Smith interrogates whether or not university is still worth the price of admission.
Trudging up Forum Hill (let alone Cardiac Hill!) for an 8:30 am lecture isn’t the most appealing prospect at the best of times, but having come to terms with 18 months of online teaching, some students are struggling to readapt to campus life. The pandemic has, undoubtedly, changed the way we perceive higher education forever. Having stripped social aspects of the “student life” away, Covid-19 has made many students rethink their approach to education and rocked higher education to its core. Getting a bachelor’s degree is no walk in the park: amid a student mental health crisis and debt, is going to university still worth it?
A degree is no longer enough to secure a graduate job
Going to university has become something of a social norm. In 2018-2019, there were approximately 2.4 million students enrolled in higher education, and this number continues to rise. The percentage of 17 to 30 year olds attending university went from 41.8 in 2006 to 50.2 in 2018. At the University of Exeter alone, there were 27,296 students in 2020-2021 as opposed to 22,085 in 2016-2017. This year, a 20 per cent increase in medicine applications meant that the university offered students £10,000 and free accommodation to defer their year of entry. These rising figures mean, unfortunately, that a degree is no longer enough to secure a graduate job: transferable skills and workplace knowledge are now essential to set oneself apart from the competition.
These growing trends, however, contradict the brewing scepticism surrounding higher education. The monetary worth of a degree is often called into question. The Guardian suggests that, for a three-year degree, graduate debt is more than £50,000 per capita. Interestingly, the percentage of 17 to 30-year-olds at universities dropped to 42.6 in 2012-2013 when the higher tuition fee cap was introduced. Degrees, unfortunately, are no longer something one studies for, but something one buys. A bachelor’s (and, arguably, a student) has become a commodity reduced to a diploma rather than the skills one has taken on board.
Concerns around money don’t stop there. At their open days, universities boast about their graduate employment rate to entice potential applicants, as if saying “Look here- I promise the debt and hours of studying will be worth it!” What would be the point in paying for a degree that leaves one jobless and bankrupt? Nevertheless, graduates still have a higher employment rate than non-graduates. The 2020 Annual Employment Rate of the working age population showed that 86.4 per cent of graduates and 88.2 per cent of postgraduates hold a job as opposed to 71.3 per cent of non-graduates.
Furthermore, the universities themselves could be as worried about money as their students are. It’s almost as if roles have been reversed: at open days, universities must now sell themselves to students or risk facing an economic deficit. Falling enrolment numbers could leave institutions such as Kingston University, London Metropolitan University and the University of Cumbria in financial difficulties- Nick Hillman, director of HEPI and past government advisor claims that “we are closer to seeing a university suffer financial collapse than at any point in living memory”.
Going back to individual experience, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, despite graduates’ better employment prospects. The 2020 National Student Survey (NSS) reported a general decline in student satisfaction. Only 41.9 per cent of participants responded positively to the following statement: “my university or college has taken sufficient steps to support my mental wellbeing during the covid-19 pandemic”. Students have had to navigate the ever-changing Covid-19 environment with little to no government guidance. Being indoors every day (sometimes confined to cramped university halls) while having to keep up with university work would take a toll on anybody’s mental health, and in addition online learning fosters feelings of isolation that are difficult to shake off. The NSS, in response to these figures, posits that “the decline in positive responses to the summary question at a provider level, for instance, could be short-lived, and might rebound once the pandemic eases”. Even though the survey’s responses seem static when reduced to words on a page, one must keep in mind that the pandemic is ever-changing and will probably require hindsight to see the bigger picture.
Reducing universities down to money and statistics would be unfair and risk overgeneralisation
But are online universities the way forward? The Open University is one of the largest institutions in Europe, having approximately 170,000 students. One can get an honours degree there for approximately £19,000, a third less than what Russell Group universities offer. Opinions surrounding online learning are often tainted by the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. In the 2020 NSS reported that 46.7% of participants responded positively to the following: “I am content with the delivery of learning and teaching of my course during the covid-19 pandemic”. It undoubtedly has its advantages, not least of which are flexibility and accessibility.
Despite what I have argued so far, I think that reducing universities down to money and statistics would be unfair and risk overgeneralisation. Students enrol in higher education for a wide range of reasons. Some choose to do so out of genuine interest in their course, while others (particularly those coming from abroad) might look forward to immersing themselves in a different culture and honing their English skills.
Humanities students often complain about their lack of job prospects post-university. A course being non-vocational, however, should not diminish its worth. The time and effort one puts into studying is just as important, if not more, than the degree one graduates with. The wonderful thing about going to university is that it opens doors beyond the purely intellectual. Not only will students encounter people from a range of different backgrounds, but they might also come to consider career options that they otherwise would not have envisaged. The University of Exeter’s Career Zone is a great example of this.
Ultimately, the worth of a university degree doesn’t boil down to where or what one studies. A student’s journey will be filled with peaks and troughs regardless of their personal circumstances. In an ideal world, individual passion for a subject should validate its worth. Do not feel pressured into pursuing higher education because “everyone else is doing it”. The best thing to do is to listen to one’s gut feeling, regardless of current trends or future predictions. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s not to take anything for granted but rather move forward one step at a time.