In my family we have a pot-pourri of successful careers, including a fashion designer, a rock musician, a helicopter pilot, a chef and a City trader. Yet not one of them went to university.
When I first told the careers adviser that, well, university might not actually appeal, the look on her face said it all. Just go, Polly, she said. You can worry about what comes next once you have a degree in your pocket.
From the age of 16, I studied the International Baccalaureate at a small, all-girls’ school and from the beginning I was comfortably under the impression that, by doing so, I might even have the upper hand to my A-level peers when it came to applying for a place at university. However, two years later, with results in hand and uni offers met, I am now wondering if this really is the right direction for me.
The norm for students of my age and attainment is to move straight from school into university in pursuit of that ticket to the future that is a degree, and, out of the eight of us doing the IB at my school, I am alone in my choice to put it off for a few years – if I go at all.
A massive amount of pressure is placed on 18-year-olds such as myself to apply for further education, particularly this year, given the fast-approaching rise in fees and, as much as anyone, I felt the strain. Of course, my school just wants what’s best for me and for me to achieve my full potential. Nevertheless, as a pupil at a conventional girls’ school, I can’t help but feel that they want me to achieve said potential in a conventional girls’ school way. In layman’s terms: finish school, get a degree, get a job, succeed at job. To stray from this line is rare, and certainly a cause for concern. Yes, I’m rather good at music but I have little to no intention of pursuing it further, and have not shown any signs of, or desire to be, the world’s next Richard Branson or Lord Sugar. As you can imagine, my school’s response wasn’t exactly one of immense elation.
I’ve done some research, and from what I can see, on average, the starting salary for a graduate is £16,000, or between £23,000 and 26,000 in a blue-chip company.
Interestingly, the starting salary for a non-graduate is the same and, generally speaking, rises each year depending on how well the employee does their job. It would seem the problem is more about getting the job in the first place. So what is the point, then? Uni is famously acknowledged for providing students with the best few years of their social lives; but other than that, will I actually miss out at all?
Theoretically, a school-leaver with enough drive and ambition could work from the bottom of a company up to the level of a newly-hired graduate, or possibly even higher, in the three years the graduate spent obtaining their degree. But the non-graduate has no student loan to repay and already has a job, whereas the graduate walks out of university searching for that one job that was snapped up three years ago by a classmate who followed a different path.
So I find it hard to understand why so many people subject themselves to the stress that is a Ucas application for a degree in a social science or humanity. I spent last week asking various companies about their views on degrees. I found that British Gas, for example, is known to encourage apprenticeships, and claims that some of its senior managers began as apprentices before progressing through the company.
Rod Aldridge, founder and former executive chairman of Capita, strongly believes in teaching young people about entrepreneurship at school in order to help those who struggle in academia to make it in the business world.
Aldridge left school at 16 and had no business experience when he set up Capita. What he did have, however, are the qualities that he believes are crucial for success: “We look at the attributes for an entrepreneur, which are risk-taking, determination, passion and looking at life differently.”
My research has confirmed, in my mind, that I won’t apply for university in September. Who knows, maybe one day I will go, and maybe it will only take a year for me to work out that that is what I really want. But, until then, I think I’ll risk starting at the bottom and work my way up – and without £50,000 of debt hanging round my neck.
Three out of five firms say it “makes no difference” whether a job candidate has a degree. A poll of employers also found that 80% would prefer a school-leaver with three years’ work experience than a graduate. All the managers and directors quizzed for the poll, commissioned by Santander, were involved in staff recruitment. The firms came from the financial services, IT, manufacturing and education sectors.
Small firms, in particular, were unimpressed by the value of a degree. However, just 12% said school-leavers had the same aptitude for learning new skills as graduates, while 58% thought graduates would be quicker learners.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the umbrella group for vice-chancellors Universities UK, urged teenagers to remember that, on average, graduates earn “considerably more” than non-graduates over their working lives. Graduates were more likely to be employed than non-graduates.
“It is also important to remember that the job market is changing,” she said, adding that: “The CBI predicted earlier this year that by 2017, 56% more jobs will require people to hold graduate-level qualifications. A university education does not just increase your chances of getting a job on leaving university, but also provides you with skills for life.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, figures to April 2011 show that degree holders earned an average of £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade. The median salary for someone aged 22-64 with a degree was £29,900, compared to £17,800 for someone without a degree. But the figures reveal that having a degree doesn’t really pay off until you are in your 30s. For people aged 22, average wages are roughly the same, whether the person has a degree or not. But degree holders saw their incomes increase faster for each year of age, reaching a peak at 51.
Unemployment among new graduates has risen in recent years, hittingreaching 18.5%, according to Labour Force Ssurvey figures. But it’s even worse for those who left school without going to university. A total of 44.3% of 16-17 year olds who are out of school were unemployed in the third quarter of 2010 (the most recent figures available), while 27% of 18-20 year olds out of school are “economically inactive”. The figures are the highest since records began in 1992.