University Challenged

Today we have another guest post from Chloë, our favourite pun-cracking eco-hippy…this time about whether university now makes financial sense?

Let’s all agree upfront that education and learning are good and noble things.

But going to university is no longer the easy decision that it was back in the day. When I went, only about ~11% of the population got degrees so they had scarcity value.

Plus the tuition was free so it was a no-brainer to go on a 3 year holiday learning experience courtesy of The Taxpayer.

If you’re considering going to University today, it’s best to do something useful, hard and in demand. Computer science, maths, physics, engineering, medicine, nursing all fit the bill (pun very much intended). Let’s call those “tier A” subjects. These degrees are money-makers.

Then would come “tier B” subjects such as law (for prospective lawyers), economics (for prospective bankers), education (for prospective teachers), social work (for prospective social workers) or quantity surveying (for prospective construction managers). These tier B subjects should help get you a job and give you a positive return on investment if you know what career you are going into. But if you end up in a different career, they may be almost useless.

What about tier C? Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news but many other subjects (e.g. media studies / international politics / gender studies / art history) are now scams perpetrated on naive young people by bloated educational empires, saddling students with debt / graduate tax for zero value added to their career prospects.

Universities are incubators of the identity politics that has fueled The Culture War and the more they go down the woke route, the more they weaken the value of their (and your) credentials.

Let’s be careful out there!

The Escape Artist

You may have heard about the troubled state of British Universities.

Mutinous students wanting everything “western” taken out of their de-colonised curricula; Universities pleading for government bailouts while their Vice Chancellors earn £486,000 a year.

The COVID-19 era has seen universities forcing students to pay chunky tuition fees for Zoom lectures – understandably, some people are now saying that university isn’t remotely worth it (Boom-Boom!) any more.

The case I’m laying out today is a blend of heresy, nostalgia and radicalism and it hinges on one key premise: British society is largely set up to make conformity and conventional living the default state of affairs.

However, those looking to achieve financial independence do not do so by living conventionally. We look for opportunity, strategic advantage, Aldi discount coupons etc. We seek to avoid common pitfalls by knowing The System well enough to beat it.

So let’s look at The System. There’s a very clear route that society wants you to take. It registers your existence as a newborn, gets you in school from 4-18, then it’s a pitstop at uni to pick up your starter debt before you get pointed at the job market and trapped in The Prison Camp until 60 65 67 69  whatever the state pension age is now.

Along the way you pay lots of lovely taxes (ideally enough to keep things afloat for a while longer) and vote every 5 years to give a sheen of legitimacy to the whole scam thing, like that sneaky spray of air freshener just before your dinner party guests arrive. Cushty.

Thanks to Tony Blair’s obsession with education, education, and… something else – I forget – government policy focused ruthlessly on the drive to get ever more young people into university: a target of 50% of the population was set and apparently achieved.

One cuppa’s worth of googling showed me that in the 1980s anywhere from 11% to 14% went into higher education, versus 50% nowadays according to the Department for Education. That 50% includes anyone under 30, so if you look strictly at 18 year olds (and you should, they’re miscreants) the figure is 32.6%.

Going to university and getting yourself a 2:i (and your liver a good thrashing) is now clearly part of the pathway that leads straight to The Prison Camp. Before couches are fainted on and brandy is taken (strictly for medicinal purposes) to calm your nerves, I’ll make myself clear: yes, I’m saying that for someone seeking Financial Independence, university is quite possibly a bad move.

Heresy! How dare I say such a thing?!?

Problem 1: Debt

The most obvious problem is the debt incurred. When 11% of young people go into university, the state can support them with a maintenance grant and no fees, as was the case until 1998. But greatly increased student numbers made fees if not inevitable then at least understandable.

Though the introduction of fees was unpopular, (and despite the brave, tireless and unshowered efforts of the National Union of Students to prevent this happening) annual tuition fees soared from £1,000 to £9,000. And then you have the living costs. Graduates are leaving with average debt of £32,000. (If Scottish students could stop laughing now, it would be much appreciated.)

There’s a more subtle danger to this: by going to university at 18 and taking on £32,000 of debt, I worry that people are starting their adult lives accustomed to debt, viewing it as just something that everyone has.

As we know, debt isn’t your wisecracking sidekick, it’s the Kryptonite that saps your powers and stopping you from flying. I don’t think people should be comfortable with debt, I think they should recoil from it like it was a piece of ricin covered lego underneath their bare feet.

Problem 2: Graduate Salaries

“Ok, the cost may be brutal, but the debt operates more like a contingent tax on the better paid and with a (higher) graduate salary you’ll pay it off, no worries” 

That is essentially true: on average graduates earn £10,000 per year before tax more than non graduates.

Correlation is not causation. But for now I’ll spare you the quibbling on the methodology, we’ll be generous and assume that this is a like-for-like comparison (spoiler: it’s not).

The thing is, this is aggregated data and we aren’t averages, we’re individuals. There’s no reason non-graduates can’t out-earn graduates. I could name multi-millionaire drop-outs, but I’d rather drop this data bomb on you: 


What is this showing? Unsurprisingly, it shows that not all degrees are equal. The median earnings of majorly popular degrees are well below the national average of £27k – look at English, Psychology, Law even.

Equally unsurprisingly, prestigious institutions fare better in terms of earnings outcome, but not many of us are saying ‘Oxbridge or nothing’. Each year there is an advertising burst to promote ‘clearing’ an unseemly scrabble to get into university, any university.

So, is it any surprise that for most graduates that student loan debt is going to stick with them a lot longer than hoped? According to a 2019 report to the House of Commons, £16 billion is loaned to students each year and only 30% will ever repay their debts in full. That means extra taxes to cover these degrees. Let’s hope they’re going to good use.

Problem 3: Degrees are no guarantee

But often they aren’t. In 2018, 57% of graduates aged 21-30 were in high-skilled jobs. The other remaining 43% were split 31% doing lower-skilled jobs and 12% unemployed or in education.

Across the working age population, 22% of non graduates are doing high-skilled jobs. It’s true that being a graduate is associated with a greater chance of being in a high-skilled job but 22% is also not insignificant.

Of course, with University being the default option now, it’s hard to know how many of those graduates would be in high skilled jobs without a degree. The high proportion of graduates who aren’t working in their field of study suggests the number who would be doing high skilled work regardless would be significant.

Over half of graduates are not even working in their field of study. I see far, far too many people take on huge debt to study English or Cultural Studies, even do a masters in them… and promptly drop them when they start their careers. This suggests to me that their passion wasn’t for the subject, they just wanted to go to university. 

Then there are the issues familiar to economics grads: supply and demand & economies of scale. In short, the huge increase in graduates has reduced their market value. Before Blair, maybe more than 11% of the population were smart enough to go to university? But equally, 39% did not magically become smarter. This is a harsh truth, but the widening of access has necessarily meant a lowering of standards. I know a fair few academics and they’re united on this: the standard of the average student has decreased.

To get on a risky soapbox, I think the mass entrance to university has profoundly changed the culture there. It’s made the institutions less academic, more corporate, more focused on student satisfaction. It’s instilled a consumer attitude and customers demand satisfaction: wouldn’t you, facing over £32,000 in debt?

Couple that with political bias leanings and you see universities being dragged away from their primary purpose of education to being a place of ‘social growth, inclusiveness and wellbeing’. That at least is the cover for them indoctrinating students and forcing curricula to include the latest social justice dogma.

If I had to sum it up, I’d say the change from elite institutions to mass participation has turned the bachelor’s degree into a 3 year middle class vacation.  It’s a bit like a woke 18-30 holiday that your parents can brag about to the neighbours.

In the UK, we’re in a zeitgeist that exalts the University Experience: Breaking out on your own (getting wankered), socialising (getting wankered), exploring yourself (getting wankered) and learning new perspectives (becoming a wanker).

Let’s sum up:

  • Universities are very expensive 
  • High earnings are not guaranteed
  • You’ll likely not pay off your student loans
  • You’ll likely carry debt into your 40s
  • Universities are increasingly Orwellian

Going to a prestigious university makes a difference, but that may not hold: if you apply for a civil service role, you will not be allowed to name your university when applying. This is to combat bias, apparently.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, a whole new narrative stresses the cultural, sophistication benefits of university even if it’s not a good idea financially. Maybe…but, dear Readers, this is the Guardian & Oatmeal equivalent of Keeping Up With The Owen Joneses.

Instead of the latest iPhone and fancy car, you get modules in critical race theory, intersectionality and social justice: not luxury goods, but luxury beliefs. But if poncey upper middle class beliefs are what you want, you can get those without University and without a stack of debt.

When does it make sense to go to university?  If you want to be an academic obvs. For some careers – in law, medicine, engineering – a degree may be essential. But otherwise, it’s probably best to not rush to college. Better to think about what your personal career goals are and see if you can reach them without the £32k debt and snakebites. 

I say skip it: for most folk you could give uni a miss, have 3 years of additional work experience, compounding and career progression instead of debt. Ultimately experience is what most employers need: it’s a safe bet that between a fresh graduate and someone with 3 years work experience, the graduate is not the first choice. [I should confess: I don’t use my degree. In fact, I got my current tech role through on-the-job training.]

But how do you get that experience? Volunteering can get you on the way, and even if you’re not paid you at least won’t be taking on student debt. If I had a do-over, I’d likely do just that.

Even learning the same skills as a student, you have a huge potential advantage outside the classroom: students learn at the speed of the class, with extra guff thrown in. You aren’t hampered by that: with SkillShare, YouTube tutorials and some good ol’ Deep Work you could be trained up in what employers need quicker than you would as a student.

This is without covering the huge earning potential of skilled self-employed tradesmen (plumbers, electricians etc), who I honestly think will have the deliciously independent edge on the average graduate in the future.

This is all intended to be helpful. It may not change your mind but it’s advice I wish I’d had. Most readers are likely well into their careers at this point, but if you’re a young reader or a parent, it’s worth considering. You might just be able to gently steer your offspring away from that Post-Colonial Comparative Mime course…

If you’d like more from Chloe, subscribe to her youtube channel, Proper Horrorshow, where she provides a unique look at films and the horror genre in particular. If you’ve wondered what makes Cape Fear a dissident classic or 12 Angry Men dangerously subversive, it’s the place to go.


  1. The daughter of a colleague qualified with an MPhil Cantab in English Literature last year – she is now picking fruit in Aberdeen. I always advise young people: think very carefully whether going to University is really going to set you up for life. In my day it did – as you say, a no-brainer – today the whole uni ed set up is a farce. If you are not considering a profession then you are better off getting a trade through an apprenticeship – and in the long run you’ll probably come out quids in (no pun intended).

    1. ^ Many such cases.
      This is such good advice. Even just waiting a year and working in the real world would do most potential university students wonders, if only so the decision of what to study gets properly considered.

  2. Great article, my daughter is about to head off to college (poly in old money). I’m fully aware (but I don’t think she is) that her chosen course and prospective professional opportunities, are unlikely to be worth it from a $ sense.

    Three years ago one of our newspapers did a report on college costs and likely salary post study. Her chosen course rated second from bottom. The top was mine engineering.

    However I’m all in favour of her going for reasons outside of this:

    1) She’s chasing her passion in a field where, if you don’t try you definitely don’t make it.
    2) I can support her significantly. (I could pay for everything but I won’t).
    3) It will be a growing and learning opportunity for her. (She’s moving from a small provincial town to a slightly larger ‘city’. We’re in New Zealand.)
    4) The next three years will be steps on the pathway to independence.
    5) 38 years ago I went to college in the UK on a ‘full ride’ (I was probably one of the last people to get full grants and tuition). I only went to see if I liked it and it gave me plenty of time to chase my sporting goals and not need a job. So in a way I’ll be paying for what I received back then.

    As an aside, her passion is in Musical Theatre. It’s a field that is a lot like sport. Potentially there is a chance to be successful financially, the reality is that only 1% of professionals in the field will be so. 99% of professionals will survive and love it. Following the other 99% of professionals there are huge numbers of extremely talented amateurs.
    But then 42 years ago I was in her place. I chased my dreams for 15 years post school, survived at the bottom end of professional sport and have had (and am still having) a simply wonderful life.

    1. Heya, thanks, I’m glad you like it. Your family situation is interesting there, please don’t take it as rude if I share a few thoughts. Given that you’re acknowledging it’s likely not a good financial decision and you seem to mostly say it it’s for your daughter’s social/personal growth, I’m seeing that as a evidence that Uni has mostly become a lifestyle thing, not an education thing.

      These are personal questions, so there’s no need to answer, but you’re sinking a lot of money into her doing something fun that is very unlikely to pay off. Given that, have you encouraged her to have a back up plan? Had you considered she can have the growing and independence experience without expensive university? I’m not sure 3 years of paid for college will make you as independent as working and paying your own way, you know?

      You are right that musical theatre isn’t something you can succeed in without going all in, I just hope it pays off.

  3. Great article. I could share some of my life story so far, and where I’m at so far with FI which might be of interest to those who still hold the antiquated view that university is a prerequisite for wealth acquisition;

    – 19 years old – decided not to go to university and instead joined an accounting firm who paid for all of my tuition, gave me time off and supported me through my training

    – 22 years old – with a small GBP 30k inheritance bought my first house (a dump) and added about GBP 50k of value through renovating it at the weekends and evenings

    – 23 years old – qualified as a chartered accountant, instant 45k salary when my friends who went to university were looking for their first jobs and were saddled with 60k of high interest debt

    – 25 years old (now) living abroad, renting out above house for 10k profit pa, earning good money applying my several years of experience, saving around 75% of my income, investing aggressively, net worth approaching GBP 300k. Zero student debt.

    I don’t mean to brag and I know I’ve been incredibly lucky with the inheritance I received, but seeing as this is an FI blog I won’t be coy about the numbers. I have no regrets about the path I have taken and none of my school friends, even those far more academically gifted than me who studied medicine, engineering etc, are even close to clearing off their student loans, let alone saving significant amounts of money. I shudder to think how long those people will be working to pay back their education costs, especially given the poor money habits they develop after graduating from university.

    I don’t hate my job and I’m not desperate to retire, but I hope to have that choice available within the next 5-10 years so I can retrain or do something fun.

    1. Fabulous life decisions – excellent – you are to be congratulated

  4. madasahattersley · · Reply

    A fascinating article. I am now 25 and I think not going to university was one of the best decisions I could have made. I bought my first house at 22 when my cohort were graduating with nothing. My employer paid for my training and exams so I was a chartered accountant by 23 with a great salary at that age (mid 40ks). I now have 7 years of experience under my belt and I’m being paid quite well working abroad as a business analyst, while many friends are woefully underemployed and haven’t even started their ‘proper’ career yet.

    I wouldn’t change my career path at all so far – I am well on my way for reaching true FI at age 30 or even before then, and that would not have been the case if I hadn’t just got my head down, and instead decided to waste my time at university. I knew I wouldn’t be a good fit and I now know I was right. I avoided 60k of debt and instead spent that time earning and saving.

    I fully agree that many degrees are not worth the paper they are written on and unless you are looking to enter a field where it is a prerequisite (most are not) then most employers would place a far higher value on an extra 3 or 4 years of experience.

    1. I applaud you for the great decision you made. Not easy going against the grain but you had the strength and maturity at a young age to make that decision. You exemplify how choice is so important – and there are plenty of choices: university is not the be all and end all.

  5. Great article Chloe.

    Having graduated with a degree in a “Tier B” subject and transitioning via a three year conversion course and several years more on the job training into a totally unrelated career. I’ve been banging this drum for the last decade to anyone that will listen.

    Personally I feel like the whole University “industry” is driven by keeping the Unemployment figures low and masses of the population chained to the workplace for as long as possible. The trouble is that many people are conditioned to believe the best option open to them is to become a wage slave, and hand in hand with that comes getting a degree. It happens at such a young age that young adults are committed to that path before they really understand what they are getting themselves into and for those in families where these people are the first generation to go to University they still see it in a traditional sense as a route to a higher paying career.

    1. Thank you! I’m really glad you liked it, drop by my youtube channel if you’d like to hear more.

      Your experience is very close to mine and I dearly wish I’d skipped the degrees and gone straight into working and earning. Your points about the motivations behind ever increasing university numbers are interesting, I definitely agree that unemployment figures have a lot to do with it. There are more cynical reasons, and you’ve named a great one – uni isn’t for free thinking anymore, it’s for conditioning employees, training people to need safety, instruction and institutions. They dissuade potential entrepreneurs by chaining young people to debt over degrees they won’t use. I really think that the longer people are kept in institutions, the less likely they are to do their own thing or challenge that system (this is based on precisely zero evidence though).

      Everyone has heard how degrees are basic filters now in job applications, which is a tacit admission that A levels aren’t worth it anymore.

  6. Very good article, clearly explaining what most folk with a few years under their belt already know to be the truth ! My brother & I both joined public service jobs at aged 18/19 when they still had 30 year final salary pension schemes ( Sadly the Gov. changed the goalpost half way through..)
    I was tempted to do a University degree as a mature student aged 23 and lasted a year before realising I was spending far too much on fun ! Great year, but as early retirement now beckons I’ve no regrets at getting a lot of pension years in from a young age.

  7. I live near a university and have students as neighbours. One thing that strikes me is how they seem to have a lot of money – cars being an obvious example as it causes parking problems on our street “when the students come back”.
    Being a net drain of cash for 3 years and sponging off your parents and / or the student loan means very unrealistic expectations of life.
    Ironically, poorer families may opt out of sending their kids for a 3 year cash spunk and have kids that end up more rounded, better off and with an actual career at the end of it.

    Another problem with university is that many of them are career limiting. Many companies won’t recruit from former polys and when it comes to getting a job that matters.

    A working gao year would be a good alternative to jumping into uni at 18 but keep all options open.

    1. Heya,

      You’ve raised an excellent point about the sudden access to money. I focused on how students enter a social group where everyone is £30k in debt, which normalises debt and accustoms them to living in it.

      As you say, sudden access to a couple of grand in your bank and lots of parties to spend it at, coupled with no council tax etc… it does mean starting your 18 life with standards of big spending and low responsibility, spending without earning… yeah, I can absolutely see that cementing and normalising a mindset that people have to painfully outgrow. Great comment.

      1. Thanks Chloe, I suspect that richer kids are more popular too – putting in place a keeping up with the Jones’s that is hard to beat.

  8. You don’t necessarily need a degree in engineering to get a decent job in that field. A solid apprenticeship should you provide you with up to HND level (plus vocational qualifications) after four years and then the company may well pay for you to do a degree part time after that. Granted you don’t get ‘the experience’ but I work with countless engineers in very senior positions who don’t have traditional degrees or have gone on to one part time. It’s worth noting that apprentices also have six years experience to offset a fresh off the block graduate with a masters.

    1. Absolutely! You’ve probably heard businesses complain about the low quality of graduates, which in one way is (in my opinion) a misunderstanding of whose job it is to train employees. I don’t really think the state should shoulder the cost of training, as it’s further eroding the academic purpose of University.

      I’ll throw another idea your way – university degrees are now victims of Goodhart’s Law (
      Namely, once a measure becomes a target, its value is at the least distorted. Degrees used to demonstrate high intelligence, diligence and capability. Government decided 50% of youth should get a degree, as if the degree itself gave these qualities. And so, as with GCSEs and A Levels, grade inflation and devaluation has hit University. Masters degrees are the new bachelor, but even they are churned out now.

      At some point, which I truly hope is now, I’d like us to abandon the hash that policy has made of this and find another solution. I don’t want us spending the next decade funding ever more expensive 3 year vacations at the Airstrip One induction centre.

    2. Hi David, I was going to make the same point! I did an engineering degree, but when I found employment in the engineering field then I still needed to complete a two year graduate trainee role before being given a permanent position in the business. There were technicians on a better salary than me (and at a younger age, no less!).

      The company I work for is also full of managers who came up via the apprenticeship route and they’re earning as good money as me… and they avoided the uni debt. Getting a HND etc. isn’t a road block to advancement, the routes just different.

  9. I liked the article and I agree with most of it but I think you’ve overlooked quite an interesting aspect of ‘uni’ life. Especially at the more prestigious Russell Group Universities a lot of the students are being financially backed by their parents to a degree that is truly eye watering. As a graduate of two such institutions (paid for mostly by working multiple jobs – I went before it became impossible to try to at least partly fund yourself) I was truly amazed how many of my cohort not only got a fully subsidised ride from mum and dad but a newish car thrown in to let them drive up on their own (to the extent that one of my universities ran a don’t bring your car to uni campaign as there wasn’t enough parking). I occasionally asked my student pals about this and it was amazing how many pointed out that university was cheaper than their private school education. I wonder if a lot of lower middle class people don’t realise just how much those further up the ladder truly have at their disposal? This subsidised existence also carries on to a much greater degree than I suspect many are really aware of, I have a number of friends whose parents pay for their grandchildren’s nursery fees / buy their now adult children new cars / pay for family holidays abroad. The distribution of wealth from boomers to their millennial offspring is a fascinating topic that I think deserves more discussion. My parents technically fall into that bracket but due to their fairly hard line attitude to helping out their kids (they don’t and won’t anytime soon) I find it fascinating how confused my friends (who know me well enough to guess that my parents must have some money) are that I just don’t have the money for lifestyle options (big wedding /new cars /big house) that their parents have clearly funded for them.

    1. It’s worth noting that, as has been stated by TEA as well as others (The Millionaire Next Door labours this point many times throughout the book), giving your kids an easy ride means they can often fail to live up to their potential and often end up being dependant on their parents for handouts all the way through their life. A bit of a shame. Working hard can lead to moments of joy that they may never see.

      1. Jerry Sims · · Reply

        There are a couple of kids living close by to me who typify this. Uni qualifications but now back living at home with parents, watching TV all day. What a waste of potential.

  10. John of Hampton · · Reply

    This is a great article, and should be read by everyone contemplating university, as well as their parents. One thing you did not mention, though, is that the idea of university as a lifestyle thing is a recent one and not something that infects most of Europe. People forget that the reason the Victorians opened universities in places like Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Bristol was so that their youth (mainly, at the time, their young men) did not have to go away to university. And for several generations, people were happy to go to their local university.

    Now, it is claimed that going to university MUST involve going away and learning to live independently (a joke if ever I heard it. Have you seen the squalor that students choose to live in?). Interestingly, by contrast, in most of Europe people still go to their local university.

    Because this “going away” nonsense is the norm, costs are increased enormously, without any benefit to the students’ education. Universities advertise themselves like up-market holiday camps, touting their sports facilities, their location and the local nightlife. Nobody seems to care about lecture rooms, libraries or laboratories.

    There are other ways to a degree-level qualification, if that is really necessary for a career (obviously not in the arts…). One is to go your nearest university, wherever it comes in any spurious set of league tables. That cuts any future student debt roughly in half. It also means the student could work part-time both during term-time and during the holidays.

    Alternatively, what about the option of day-release while working? It is worth noting that the only person currently alive who has been full professor at both Oxford and Cambridge (Dame Carol Robinson) left school at 16, worked in industry and did all her qualifications in chemistry up to MSc part-time this way. All the colleges she studied at, and the company she worked for, still exist and if someone went this way today they would graduate with no debt at all. They might not have been drunk so often, but they would be much better off financially.

    We have got so much wrong about what universities are about, and this article mentions many of them. Thank you for it, and for the case so clearly made for thinking hard about the options and not following the herd.

    1. Yeah, I’ve read those books too. I’m fairly non conformist in my attitude to life and I’m fine with working hard for what I have but what I was trying to articulate was that the narrative around the need for a ‘uni’ experience is propped up by a large number of people who aren’t having to face up to the stark reality of thousands of pounds of student loan debts cos their parents have paid for it. Granted their parents possibly would have got the same ROI by setting the cash on fire in their back garden but it doesn’t matter to them. It does, however, really matter to the kids who’ve taken out massive student loans to pay for a degree that everyone has told them they need to get. Even in my 30s I’m still susceptible to feeling like a bit of a failure when I’m drinking the champagne at the fancy wedding or having house warming drinks in a huge new open plan kitchen. I know that I have a job that is both more stable and better paid and that these things are just the result of being ‘lucky’ enough to have parental support but I have to remind myself of this. How the hell a 17 year old is supposed to get their head around the notion that a lot of their peers aren’t going to be paying for the long term consequences of their ‘uni’ experience I don’t know.

      1. Dammit, replied to the wrong post, and I already know that multi tasking is a bad idea. Ho hum, everyone here is clever enough to know this was supposed to be posted ^

    2. I love your comment! The gigantic shift from Universities as elite academic institutions to mass access 3 year vacations is worth its own article. I’ll briefly mention that it’s misguided attempt to solve the problem, i.e. ‘The most successful people go to university, so if we send everyone to university, they’ll be successful too.’

      As Barney highlighted in his foreword, the signifiers that university lost its pedigree already – the mainstream culture is catching up to that. It’s the classic story of pioneers already moving on as the mainstream trend kills something. See also, Facebook, Myspace, YouTube etc.

  11. Having been through university in the early noughtie’s I can relate to a lot of this article. I was one of the lucky one’s to end up in a ‘graduate scheme’ at a relatively large, FTSE organisation which paid reasonably well and I’ve been able to progress well through my career, paying off my student debt early in my 30’s and subsequently focusing on saving towards FI.

    Did I learn anything whilst at university? Other than being able to feel pleased with myself on the rare occasion that I manage to dredge up something from my memory and answer a question on Economic Theory whilst watching University Challenge, no I don’t think I did. There is often an argument made that university helps you to develop critical thinking skills required in a place of work – unless that covers the critical thinking required to decide whether to get up and go to a lecture or stay in bed to sleep off a hangover I’m not convinced.

    In my current role I’m fortunate to oversee apprentices starting out their career in Technology – be that Software Engineering, Cyber Security or Data Science or Project Management. After 2 years, they will be qualified, some to degree level and earning more than any graduate intake, and often the first thing we then do with graduates is sign them up to an apprenticeship scheme so they can develop the technical skills that university didn’t give them! So they are just 3 years behind their peers and saddled with lots of debt.

  12. Renegade Mercian · · Reply

    I was home educated ,which made me highly sceptical of all things institutional in the UK. I headed off to university mainly as a way to create a new platform for stability and thinking through my future. Sure enough, I’ve met great people, learned how to be an adult and so on. But the academic side of it is beyond a joke and I am switching to the OU to finish my degree – if I’m going to watch a bunch of videos I’d prefer to take them from an organisation with decades of experience and spend a fraction of the cash on it. Oh, and be able to move around freely rather than being locked on campus. The way university is marketed to teenagers is borderline criminal, with lots of naive stats about ‘graduate premiums’ thrown around without a breakdown by subject and uni status. Art History at Oxford? It’s a decent gamble. Elsewhere, same subject, the house always wins.

    If you want an empirical analysis of these matters the economist Bryan Caplan has a fantastic book and lectures based on it called The Case Against Education. If you want to less fancy graph based version then a quote from Good Will Hunting suffices : “you dropped 150 grand on a f***** education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”

    Obviously not true for medicine, law, engineering and biosciences, mathematics and physics to an extent on the experimental side. But everyone else should think very carefully indeed. By the way, I love this blog. A source of great inspiration and cheer.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, I’m very intrigued. I love the Good Will Hunting quotation too, there’s a lot of truth in that.

      Being Home Educated is excellent, I think it will be an increasingly popular choice. I read this meta-study that really impressed me:

      Would you mind writing a bit about your home education experience?

      Peter Hitchens covers the increasing downfall of the UK’s education system well too. Being sceptical of all things institutional is very wise. Even benevolently intended, state institutions ‘cement’ one way of doing things and make everyone pay for it – only so many people can afford to pay for the same service twice, and so more people move to the state options, shrinking the other options and that starts a vicious circle. As with the Friendly Societies, so with Private and Grammar Schools…

      Thanks again for your comment 🙂

      1. Renegade Mercian · · Reply

        Dear Chloe,

        Regarding home education, I am sort of the black sheep of my family as I spent a lot of time mucking around, climbing mountains and chasing girls at times when I should have been focused on erm, critical exams. My sisters both did very well and ended up at Cambridge and St Andrews, one of them getting an offer from Cambridge when she was only 16, which was pretty impressive. Myself, a rather less prestigious but not at all terrible Scottish university before my OU switch. That said, the *kind* of mucking around I did built enough self confidence that I can deal with not having the shiniest c.v in the room. Home ed is actually not undertaken at home for the most part, instead you are out talking to all kinds of adults – at museums, clubs and societies, free university lectures and so on. That’s where you learn that the world is big and interesting and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to be interested in it all. We also as a family read literally hundreds of books aloud to each other, giving my sisters and I a breadth and depth of random general knowledge that has been very helpful for later life, not to mention confidence in public speaking and argument.

        Home education is not easy on parents, as it stops the outsourcing of responsibility – only in recent years have I understood more of the sacrifices and efforts they made. But I think we are a stronger family as a result of it too.

        Regarding universities, while I do think they are approaching crisis point in terms of purpose, they still have several big advantages in terms of social capital on their alternatives. The biggest of these is that you get to spend 3 or 4 years on state life support learning how to live a bit. You get to make a lot of friends if you are outgoing and network the hell outta things. These are good, not good enough for most people in my mind but good things. I would instead now tell my younger self to move to a university city, take a part time job and study part time online. After 5 years you’d have no debt, a degree, lots of connections, practical experience and friends. Most of the best, less of the worst.

        If you have any more questions I’d be happy to help

  13. Cookie Monster · · Reply

    I left school with fairly average grades and entered the world of work. I was earning below minimum wage until minimum wage was introduced and then I was earning slightly above. I decided to go to university as a mature student in my early 20s. I studied what you would probably consider to be a tier 3 degree – history. After graduating with a 2.1 I re-entered the world of work and built my career. I am now earning more than 40k. Going to university for me was truely transformational, and it remains so for many people.
    Yes it is different to how it was in the past when only a select few could enjoy the benefits of scarcity value. But now we have a system that is much more open to people from underprivilaged backgrounds and is truely life changing for them.
    As for the debt issue. When you graduate and start working you only start repaying your debt above an earning threshold. So if you are in a low paying job you pay none of that debt back. Therefore it cannot be seen as a debt like any other. It is more of a higher earning tax. Which is a much fairer system than free tuition where the poorest taxpayers subsidise the education of future bankers.
    I know this is a finance blog (and quite a good one) but you can’t, or rather you shouldn’t, take a narrow view of education as a means to higher earnings. For most it is. But it is so much more than that. It opens up new skills such as critical thinking that are sadly lacking in school education; it provides opportunities and choice to study a passion; it offers networking opportunities, and yes it can also be a lot of fun. Many people look back on their university days as the best years of their lives. Why would you want to forego that?!

    1. Heya Cookie Monster, thanks for the comment, please don’t take this reply as a personal attack, but I think you’re demonstrating a lot of what I wrote about.
      Specifically, you’ve used a lot of the messaging of ‘Uni as Lifestyle’ that I criticised. I’m glad you enjoyed studying history – are you working as a historian now? Do you directly use your degree?
      You mention Uni as a source of opportunities – but so are apprenticeships and work. You mentioned people, especially ‘people from underprivileged backgrounds’, can study a ‘passion’.

      This is exactly what has decayed the academic and scarcity value of university, I’ve seen a lot of that and I don’t know why I should pay for it. Yes, student loan repayments aren’t standard debt, and as I showed a lot of it goes on the national debt. So, again, why should I pay for someone’s passion degree out of my pay packet?

      Using terms like ‘underprivileged’ is also indicative of problem, because it requires a utopian worldview of knowing who deserves what. I’d highly recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s ‘The Vision of the Anointed’ to understand this. Beyond that, as I showed in the article, University will be a hindrance to a lot of those ‘underprivileged’ people, given them a skewed social justice worldview and debt. Looking at the student representatives, I really don’t think you want to credit Uni with giving them their critical thinking skills.

      You end by saying University offers networking opportunities, but that isn’t what it’s for. Conferences do the same. Lots of people probably do look back on the Uni days as the best years of their lives, which is again indicative of how much of a 3 year extended adolescence it is.

      I think if you read my article, you surely can understand why someone would want to forego that – Look at other comments on here: plenty skipped uni and the ‘higher earnings tax’.

      I don’t have a ‘narrow view of education as a means to higher earnings’ at all – but I don’t ignore the costs incurred of someone taking 3-4 subsidised years to study a passion that they never use. Someone has to pay for that. I also don’t think education is confined to universities and school, in fact I think it’s increasingly rare in those places. Put another way, I’m very interested in Horror Films, Economics and Video editing – Those are my passions, hence my youtube channel. I could lean on the taxpayer to fund a degree in any of those, but I buy or rent my own books, watch lectures online and seek out the knowledge myself. Going to University, with a strict timetable, limited scope, academic bias and 3 year schedule would be more narrow.

      It’s hard to disagree with someone online without it sounding really harsh, so please know I don’t intend any of this as mean.

      1. Cookie Monster · · Reply

        Hi Chloe, hey no worries at all, it’s possible to have a difference of opinion and not get personal. I hope you didn’t find my previous comment harsh either, or this reply either.
        No I don’t directly use my history degree, which I loved studying. There are only so many professional historians and history teachers the country needs after all. However, there are most definately transferable skills that one can obtain from a degree in a non-vocational subject like history and apply those to many career options. My degree increased my confidence, gave me critical thinking skills, hone my research skills, my ability to formulate an arguement as well as many other employable skills. I was then able to apply these to start a career in a very different industry to the low-skilled one I had worked in prior to university.
        There is also the social benefit of a population that has an increased awareness and knowledge of the past. High school education can only give a shallow depth of knowledge of a limited number of areas.
        Let’s look at other ‘tier 3’ subjects, in the arts for example. I accept your point that STEM subjects generally do pay the best for graduates, and some arts subjects fare less well in comparison. There probably are too many students choosing to do weak subjects in poorer institutions at the lower end of the league tables – though if that was the point out were making I’m sorry if I missed that nuance.
        I don’t think we could then extrapolate that to mean that all arts degrees are therefore not worth studying. I know you didn’t say that directly, but that was the insinuation I took from your article. The arts are one of the UK’s greatest strengths and exports – or at least they were pre-pandemic. If we narrow universities to become glorified technical colleges we risk becoming quite a narrowly focused and more boring society. Again that is more of a social benefit than a financial one.
        Back to finances, whether we like it or not we must face the realities of the employment market. Are there the same number of opportunities for high school leavers, such as apprenticeships, as there are graduate job opportunities? And although narrowing, the graduate premium is very much still there – albeit mostly in the more technical subjects, but not exclusively so.
        You say that university degrees are expensive but then that the taxpayer ends up shouldering too much? The system before tuition fees laid the entire cost of that education at the feet of taxpayers. The lowest paid cleaners for example were subsidising the education of investment bankers. But if you become a high flyer earning megabucks then surely you should pay for that education that you benefitted from the most. That’s my view anyway. Those who do not benefit from a highly paid career, for whatever reason, whether from studying a passion or perhaps for choosing to work in the lower paid chaitable sector, then they have to pay much less of their fees back. Yes the taxpayer has to subsidise some of that, but in the past, although there were fewer students, they we footing the total bill. But that is still too much for the taxpayer to bare, you might think. But lets not forget that universities are one of the best export sectors this country has. Each year, pre-pandemic, many thousands of young people jet in from across the world to study in our universities. They recognise that our universities are among the best, and pay three or four times the amount for the opportunity, even if some in our country question whether it is worth going. All of these international students are bringing in billions of extra revenue to UK coffers. The student tuition fees cross subsidise world-leading research – just look at the Oxford vaccine news this week to see how important university research is. Would this many international students come if we were just offering technical courses? Some would, and many come to study business related courses, but many also do not. On balance the taxpayer is doing well.
        “Using terms like ‘underprivileged’ is also indicative of problem, because it requires a utopian worldview of knowing who deserves what. I’d highly recommend reading Thomas Sowell’s ‘The Vision of the Anointed’ to understand this” – thanks for the book recommendation. Obviously I have not had chance to read it yet so your point is lost on me, but in my view social mobility is a positive thing. Increased participation in higher education does enable more people from poorer backgrounds to potentially benefit from the increased opportunities a degree still brings.
        By the way I was interested to see that your data bomb of graduate salaries was taken from the cohort that graduated in 2008 – the year of the great recession. Any reason for choosing that particular year, given employment opportunities would have been fewer for that cohort? In any case, selecting pay data from just five years after graduation is problematic. I recognise it may be the only data available, but who reaches peak earning at 26? Many graduates will go on to earn much more in their 30s and 40s.
        “…given them a skewed social justice worldview…” – sorry not quite sure what that means, though I suspect it is more rooted in prejudice and your own worldview than in any evidence.
        Returning to the best years of your life comment, surely something that is one of the best parts of one’s life is priceless?
        Again, hopefully you don’t take anything personal or harsh in here either. Good to exchange different viewpoints 🙂

        1. Heya, nothing taken harshly at all, I’m enjoying the exchange.

          We definitely have different worldviews, so we’ll probably not agree but can understand each other better.

          For Instance, I see you supporting universities as places of fun, growth, social advancement… almost anything but elite understanding of a subject. I think ironically it has made them technical colleges in effect, as a Bachelors degrees is deflated in value to just being general critical thinking.

          I very strongly disagree that University is giving a general education and ‘ social benefit of a population that has an increased awareness and knowledge of the past.’. Schools have failed at this, Universities don’t and should not do this.

          The evidence shows people don’t use their degrees directly, so yes I believe they could go straight into ‘graduate jobs’, which are largely misclassified and are just jobs that are heavier thinking. THis might sound odd from what I’ve written, but I think there’s a lot of snobbery around asking for or preferring a degree that just isn’t necessary for most skilled work. Generally, if employees need additional training, the firm that benefits should pay for it.

          I’m afraid your way is letting people have a lot of fun and pursue interests and pass the cost onto everyone, including people who never went to university.

          So, let’s talk cost.

          You are absolutely right that we ‘export’ education, we charge foreign students far more. Universities are understandably keen to keep them coming in. Their ‘export value’ is around 17.6 billion (in 2015).


          So does that outweigh the cost of send nearly 50% of school leavers to university?
          “Currently more than £17 billion is loaned to around 1.3 million students in England each year. The value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2020 reached £140 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding loans to be around £560 billion (2019‑20 prices) by the middle of this century. The average debt among the cohort of borrowers who finished their courses in 2019 was £40,000.

          The Government expects that 25% of current full-time undergraduates who take out loans will repay them in full.”


          That is a definite no. We are furthering huge debt to give largely middle class, comfortable people a social nicetie and a 3 year vacation, because schools are bungled.

          You said: “Returning to the best years of your life comment, surely something that is one of the best parts of one’s life is priceless?”

          This is a really key difference – It’s not priceless, it has a huge price and someone has to pay it. Government debt, graduate tax, inflation, lost years of earnings.

          I cited graduate earnings from 2008 as that’s the data I could find, obviously more recent data would have been better. Nevertheless, the graduate premium has shrunk as shrunk as ever more people gain a degree. It’s not just scarcity value, it’s that degrees are watered down for mass participation. It’s like Goodhart’s Law – Misunderstanding a degree as a source of value, not an indicator of it. Putting every student through university to make them smarter is the equivalent of painting your car red to make it go quicker.

          We do have an area of agreement though! I absolutely agree that the old system was flawed, as the people benefitting passed the cost on. It was a far smaller cost given the very low percentage of people who went to Uni.
          We have the same problem now – low earners don’t pay back at all, but still enjoyed their ‘passion’ degree at everyone’s expense. Moderate earners pay some back, but as I linked and wrote, only 25% will pay their full student load back, so again everyone else pays. Only the highest earners will pay for their degree, which is of course subsidised, so again the cost has been passed on. This just is not fair.

          Last area – Sowell and Social Justice.

          Thomas Sowell’s book really is fascinating, I highly recommend it. From your comments and willingness to have a good dialogue, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

          I wrote that universities will push a social justice worldview on students, which might not have been clear. You said you ‘suspect it is more rooted in prejudice and your own worldview than in any evidence.’

          I mean that universities have been increasingly, visibly taking a political stance and pushing it into every curriculum they can, and the student unions push that worldview even stronger in student social activities. This means students imbibe the worldview or have to conform at least to get by. Sorry if I was unclear about that.

          That worldview is best called ‘Intersectionality’, or Intersectional social justice, neo-marxism, critical race theory, identity politics, etc etc. I honestly think it’s pretty hard to miss this, especially this year following the BLM riots and pushes to ‘decolonise’ UK universities. I think it’s undeniable.

          You might support that worldview and think there’s a lot to it, so you might think that’s not a bad thing, but I think we can at least agree that it’s happening.

          Again, nothing harsh intended – I hope you see my point of view?

        2. Cookie Monster · ·

          Yes we do have very differing world views, but the world would be a lot more boring if we thought alike 🙂
          Just jumping in to respond to a few of your points.

          You say
          “I see you supporting universities as places of fun, growth, social advancement… almost anything but elite understanding of a subject.” No sorry you misunderstand, an elite understanding in a subject is as well as all those other benefits. Took that as a given.

          You said:
          “I very strongly disagree that University is giving a general education and ‘ social benefit of a population that has an increased awareness and knowledge of the past.’. Schools have failed at this, Universities don’t and should not do this.”
          I was talking specifically about my history degree. It did give me an increased awareness and understanding of the past., and I should hope so too as that is what you would expect from a history degree. Of course universities delivering history degrees should do this. I believe there is a social benefit of more people in society having an understanding of the past but happy you have a different view.

          ” I think there’s a lot of snobbery around asking for or preferring a degree that just isn’t necessary for most skilled work. Generally, if employees need additional training, the firm that benefits should pay for it.”
          Possibly is the case but that is an altogether different argument about emploters needing to change their attitude. In the current climate while employers favour graduates surely it makes sense to get a degree.

          “I’m afraid your way is letting people have a lot of fun and pursue interests and pass the cost onto everyone, including people who never went to university.”
          People can have fun and work hard too. I worked bloody hard for my degree. As we have agreed, most graduates earn more over their careers than non graduates. We have discussed tuition fees and who pays that back, but we haven’t discussed income tax. Graduates on the whole earn more and therefore pay more tax. UK plc does well.

          As an aside, universities also do lots of work with businesses in their regions including PhD research, student project placements, and lots of other economic stimulating activity that boosts tax returns, jobs and business growth.

          “degrees are watered down for mass participation” any evidence for that?

          “I mean that universities have been increasingly, visibly taking a political stance and pushing it into every curriculum they can” again, any evidence for that?
          Universities are not preserved in aspic. They constantly change, evolve, adjust, amend, review, to stay relevant to the times. Just like every business, or individual has to.

          Interesting discussion and glad we agreed on one point 🙂

  14. I think you raised a good point about debt.

    It drives me insane when people talk about tuition fees as debt – because it’s not. It’s more of a tax. But when you mentioned it making those in ‘debt’ more accustomed to being in ‘debt’, this could pave the way for accepting taking on more dangerous loans (payday, credit etc.) as normal.

    It’s certainly something I’ve seen in the past with friends and overdrafts. But I think I’ve seen quite the opposite in my small group of friends. Because they’ve been so used to being in ‘debt’ through tuition fees, and ‘actual’ debt through overdrafts, most seem incredibly eager to pay their way out and never be in that situation again. But I admit this is probably a very small sample and might out fo the ordinary.

  15. You mentioned the civil service. As a former ‘fast streamer’ (which I needed any 2.2 or better degree for, if I recall) I’m now working on mid-sixties salary well away from London in my late twenties, which I consider handsome pay. Couldn’t have done it without a degree (mine was an utter Mickey Mouse degree, incidentally, albeit at least you might say Oxbridge still counts for something as a brand in some careers). Now my experience is anecdotal, and my closest peers are not necessarily typical of the wider population, but it’s a pretty common story amongst my friends – the only unusual thing I’ve done is managed to keep aawy from London.

  16. As some-one who went to Uni in my youth and dropped out after the 1st year, and then became an Approved Electrician in my late twenties I would say that apprenticeships can be very good and also terrible – it’s very important to learn the right trade, for the right company that is going to expose you to a good range of work and mentor you properly – not just get you to make tea, or do the donkey work such as chasing out walls and drilling holes all day!
    It’s very important to do some serious homework on the company that a prospective apprentice has had an offer from.
    For example there’s a big difference between training to be a coffee barista and a Controls Engineer or Industrial Electrician! (no offence to Coffee Barista’s intended).
    Tradesmen don’t always get treated with the same respect as ‘Professionals’ also (even though to me a fully qualified Tradesman is a professional) and some of the working conditions such as those on certain building sites can leave a lot to be desired!

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