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”
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:
GRAPH 1: LOOK ON MY WORKS YE MIGHTY AND DESPAIR
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.