By Juliette Holland
That time of year has arrived again, when photos of 18-year-olds celebrating their university places are rife and university adverts for clearing inescapable. However, does this year mark a change in the long enduring pattern of an ever-increasing student population?
Less school leavers are now choosing to go to university, or so some statistics suggest. The BBC reported a 2% decline in university applications from last year, with UCAS noting a decrease of 11,000 in applications. But sources have interpreted these statistics differently, some citing them as an anomaly, others as a stagnation, a figure as equally proportionate to the number of school leavers in the population as usual.
What is clear is that there has been a palpable shift in attitudes towards university, with a marked scepticism beginning to find its feet. But is it really so terrible that people may be considering different routes?
There are a number of reasons why young people may be deciding to pursue a different path, the often-cited exorbitant tuition fees being an undeniably substantial one. With the average graduate leaving university with £57,000 of debt (although, as the government likes to remind us, they do not pay it off until they are earning £21,000, and indeed they may never pay it off at all), the very prospect of an almost everlasting debt is hardly likely to entice.
What is more, despite the increasing cost of degree education, graduates seem unable to reap the same benefits enjoyed by previous generations. Long gone are the days when a degree was commensurate with a highly skilled job, and the youth of today are more than aware that a degree is by no means a guarantee of employment. As research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development confirms, 58.8% of UK graduates end up in non-graduate jobs.
Additionally, maintenance loans are often not enough to cover living costs at many British universities, with many students having to take on part-time jobs to cover expenses. Add to this a heightened awareness of many students’ fraught mental health; for many, university is simply no longer worth the strain, emotionally or financially.
Perhaps it is not a bad thing that young people are choosing not to subject themselves to this. For too long, university has been pushed by the government and education system as the only viable path to success. Yet many are not suited to academia; a loss of interest in university is the perfect opportunity for the government to seize, encouraging and invigorating alternative paths such as apprenticeships.
Similarly, the increasing accessibility of university means that many often go for the wrong reasons, in a feeble attempt to avoid missing out on the student experience rather than with a genuine desire to pursue an academic discipline further. Less of this surely cannot be condemned. That less people may be choosing university demonstrates a self-awareness, a comprehension that the ‘degree equals highly skilled job’ formula is but a myth, and a dangerous one that only creates disillusionment, the loss of which should not be deplored.
Vitally, for many, a degree is not worth the money; despite promises of the best graduate employment rates, many universities’ graduates will never pay off their loans. Indeed, lower and middle-ranking institutions are now having to beg students to come to them, disseminating copious unconditional offers to incentivise young people to bring them their business.
For this is the very problem with the system: a commercial tone that commodifies education has been set. The very value-for-money perspective I have described is in itself problematic and a consequence of a system that places commercial viability at the heart of every decision; a value system antithetical to education’s true worth.
It hardly seems fair that it is students from less well-off backgrounds that end up with the most debt, a dire punishment and reinforcement of social inequality. Indeed, the expansion of universities has little to do with a desire to promote and facilitate access to education. It has far more to do with profitability.
A desire to maximise student numbers may indeed stem from the income that each new student brings, notably a profit of £1,400. Higher education generates £59 billion for the UK economy, placing it above both the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. Similarly, an attempt to reduce the pensions of university staff seems somewhat in line with a desire to maximise profit margins.
So, if people are deciding not to go to university because academia is not for them or because they would rather pursue an apprenticeship (an option increasingly entering the public light), as some seem be, then this is positive. But if this value system is preventing people who would like to further their academic study from doing so, as I suspect it is for some, then a waning interest in university is something to be concerned about.
Photograph: Sky News