Is it worth going to university?

Twenty or so years ago a university education would have guaranteed you a well paid job. People with degrees were rare and so having a degree level qualification to your name would make you stand out at the very least and get your foot in through the door.

Fast forward to 2021 and the landscape is very different.

A paper by Universities UK  titled ‘Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education’ published in 2018 shows the growing number of University students since 2009 (see chart below).  

I do not think it is a bad thing that these numbers are growing, some of this is down to the great work put in by universities to reach out to a broader audience of students and encourage them to attend university where they may not have traditionally considered it. Young people who are the first in their families to go to university. I myself, was one of these people.

Yet, with more recent figures claiming that half of all 18 year olds go to university and as the scarcity of people walking around with degrees is reduces, it begs the question, is it worth it?  Considering that they may not make you stand out any more it is a valid question. Add to that the growing costs of tuition fees, housing etc.. and alternatives to university being pushed by the government, are students better off opting for alternatives?

I find myself having this discussion with my A Level students each year. May of them come in with a mindset that University degrees are more valuable than an apprenticeship and it’s only when we dig deeper that they see the value in apprenticeships rather than dated ideas about them.

So is it worth going to university?

There are a number of ways we can answer the question.

One is to look at the earning potential of degree courses, if students are completing a degree, what they will gain out of it financially.

The government published a a fascinating paper on this in November 2018 called ‘The impact of undergraduate degrees on early-career earnings.’ In it they highlight:

“Not all degrees are the same, and subject choice appears to be a very important determinant of returns. For men, studying creative arts, English or philosophy actually result in lower earnings on average at age 29 than people with similar background characteristics who did not go to HE at all. By contrast, studying medicine or economics appears to increase earnings by more than 20%. For women, there are no subjects that have negative average returns, and studying economics or medicine increases their age 29 earnings by around 60%.”

I would encourage anyone interested in this area to read the whole paper, particularly to highlight the difference in pre HE characteristics e.g. higher attainment and background which also has an impact on earnings.

In December 2019 FE news published the highest and lowest earning degrees in the UK 5 years after graduating.

The highest earning degrees were:

Lowest earning degrees were:  

I think the above also raises questions about how we value different career choices in our society and in our markets. But should we base going to university on its financial benefits alone? Personally I don’t think so.

We know our young people don’t just complete degrees for earning potential. Many pursue subjects that they have a passion for or that lead them to careers they aspire to be in. Unfortunately, there is no data to show this (unless you are looking for satisfaction results by institution rather than degree level).

With a growing emphasis on degree level apprenticeships and the new T Levels however we do need to question whether students would be getting an equally valuable experience out of these rather than a degree. Again with many of them being so new data is hard to find to answer this question.

The Incomes Data Research Centre published some interesting research about the starting hourly rate of degrees vs apprenticeships in July 2019 and compared it to National Minimum Wage. Their findings are summarised below:

However, they did note:

“Despite the attractive pay on offer for apprentices, the study has found that graduates are more likely than apprentices to complete their training in full, possibly due to the development opportunities and status offered by such programmes, suggesting that recruits to graduate programmes perhaps have greater longevity with the same employer. Whether this changes as the number of degree-apprentices increases remains to be seen.”

So the conclusion?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. Higher education is about more than just earning potential (although that is important for our young people) and much of the softer data doesn’t exist. Whether students pick degrees or apprentices depends on how well they understand themselves and those around them understand them and can advise them.

I’m pleased to say I have seen some of my phenomenal students go to the most prestigious universities, others be the first ones to complete university degrees in their families and yet others complete apprenticeships at companies such as Rolls Royce, Google and KPMG. Each one chose their path based on what they felt was important to them in terms of style of learning, exposure to industry, lifestyle, location and many more factors. I was privileged to help them navigate through these complex questions. I was surprised how many came in with their parents with negative connotations towards apprenticeships and a preference for degrees and changed their minds once they recognised what alternatives to traditional degrees could offer.

Although I can’t offer a single response to the question I can for certain say that the conversation around this needs to continue with our young people and their parents for them to make the right decisions for themselves. 

Some sources of information mentioned above:

https://www.incomesdataresearch.co.uk/resources/press-releases/pay-for-degree-apprentices-rises-more-rapidly-than-that-for-traditional-graduates-press

https://www.fenews.co.uk/press-releases/39718-ucas-deadline-the-highest-and-lowest-earning-degrees-revealed

https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/data-and-analysis/Documents/patterns-and-trends-in-uk-higher-education-2018.pdf

Debit, Credit and Credit Scores

In a world where Klarna means that young people are more readily getting credit from their favourite stores, stores are offering you a store card when you go to check out for an item and Apple Pay and contactless mean you barley ever exchange cash for an item it is fair to say our young people have a different relationship to money then we did. This makes it all the more necessary to teach our students about Credit, Debit and the impact of their shopping habits on their credit scores for the future.

On a personal note, I can still remember an intervention me and a housemate had to stage for a friend in our second year of university. Her credit card spending was out of control and we could see her spiralling into debt. The intervention included cutting up her credit card so she would only spend money on her debit card. Looking back at it it was quite a mature thing to do, as we could quite easily just have admired her new clothes and laptop. I was lucky to have a group of friends I could discuss my financial health with. Our students might not be.

According to The Money Charity in February 2021 Credit card debt averaged £1962 per household and £1032 per adult. They also noted that a credit card on the average interest would take 24 years and 5 months to repay making only the minimum repayments each month.

I’m loathed to say Credit cards are bad. Because they really aren’t. There are purchases on which I would absolutely use them. Buying flights for instance which are automatically insured via the credit card company. Always helpful when stranded in an airport after numerous flight cancellations (I’m speaking from experience). They are also important to build up a credit score.

The resources this week highlight:

  • The difference between debit and credit
  • Interest rates
  • How your credit rating is developed
  • The importance of a credit ratings
  • Where to use your credit and debit cards.

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The value of teaching our young people about hustles

According to the IPSE, the UK had 4.4 million solo self-employed people, meaning they worked alone for themselves and did not employ people. We may know them as freelancers who offer a particular set of skills (at the risk of channeling Liam Neeson here) such as a graphic designer.

In addition to this, in January 2021 Micro Biz Magazine offered the below statistics about the number of people with a side hustle as well as their main job:

  • There are 1.1 million people in the UK with a second job or who are self-employed in addition to a primary job.
  • That’s 3% of the working population.
  • Despite this, 25% of people in the UK claim to have a side hustle.
  • 37% of people in the UK say that their salary alone does not allow them to have a comfortable lifestyle.

Whilst the exact number of people is difficult to quantify (what counts as a side hustle and does everyone reveal it?) the trend is that more people are willing to have a primary job and then try to earn money on the side. This can be through anything from consulting to proof reading and becoming a seller/promoter of beauty brands on social media (the modern take on the Avon lady).

Of course there are discussions to be had here, what does it say about our societies that people have to have multiple jobs to live a life they are comfortable in? Are peoples’ expectations of what they should have too high? Or is the average salary and the average person’s spending power too low? I do not explore these in the resources, but it is something that we as adults can think about as we prepare young people to go into work.

Needless to say, our students will enter a world where it will be commonplace to have more than one source of income from a 9-5 job.

The accompanying slide decks cover different side hustles and what people can do to develop them as well as some famous side hustles that became big businesses.

What may seem to us as teachers as a hobby, is being monetised by many young people. However not every hobby should be monetised as some may feel that by expecting to earn from it can take away from its joy.

It’s also important to note that companies are increasingly turning to freelancers to complete tasks they choose to outsource, so the demand for people who want to complete these tasks whether they be graphic design or proof reading for example continues to grow. 

What’s the cost of your chosen job?

I don’t know about you but when I was growing up my parents had a very clear idea about which jobs would allow me to be financially comfortable (namely, lawyer, doctor, engineer) and which ones wouldn’t (writer, artist anything creative). Unfortunately for them I displayed more creative qualities from an early age than I did the scientific.

Some thirty or so years on and they are shocked to learn how much some professions can make. A creative designer, photographer etc.. and how society has started valuing certain professions differently. 

There are numerous sources showing the average salary of a variety of jobs, some can be found in the resources for this blog. However a key discussion we do need to have with students is around cost benefit. For instance does the average salary of a pharmacist justify the years of training? Does the average salary of a CEO justify the risk? It’s easy for students to look at average salaries and think ‘I want that!’, but are they willing to put in the work? And that’s a serious discussion we need to have rather than assuming they should be. Some people don’t want to take risks of entrepreneurship, others don’t want to spend 5 years training for a job and all of that is ok. 

The other catch is that sometimes jobs can seem cooler than they are. Job Descriptions are valuable here. Get students to look at Job descriptions online to understand what a job involves. The every day tasks, the responsibilities. 

I was surprised to see when I googled ‘Factors to consider when choosing a career’ none of the lists considered this in any detail. Let me repeat that. When I googled ‘Factors to consider when choosing a career’ many of them didn’t tell you to look at a job description and many more failed to suggest we consider the cost of entering a profession. How does that make sense?

In order to set our students up for success in their chosen careers they have to have a good understanding of themselves. What is their attitude to risk? How would they feel about sitting in lectures for 3-5 years? Do they have the discipline to study for exams for another 3 years? Or longer? Do they want to be in a profession where they have to be requalify? 

I’ve put together some materials to help with these discussions.

Does Money Make Us Happy?

Many people may have had this thought during lockdown. Or perhaps another question: How much money makes us happy? Some have realised how little they have spent superfluous items during the pandemic when our access to, or need for, these items has been limited. Some may have questioned whether they need to return to that level of spending again.

The thing is, unless we discuss the relationship between money and happiness with our students, we leave them open to being influenced without dialogue. And this is where the negative connotations with money come into play. These can be anything from ‘Money is the root of all evil,’ or ‘I have to make as much money as possible at any cost’ and everything in between.

The average salary in the UK is £38,800

Studies have shown that happiness does not increase beyond a certain point (around £50,000)

But that’s still a lot of money.

The bit that often gets missed out of the discussion is what it allows you to do. Where do the happiest people spend their money? Ask students and they often equate money with buying power. And that makes sense. Money allows you to buy fast cars, nice clothes, wonderful food etc… But it also allows you to do things. Serve others. Create something greater than yourself. And again if we don’t discuss this with our students, they’ll be chasing things that they hope will make them happy rather than experiences that could really change their lives. 

So the slide deck being sent out this week discusses the power of money with our students and the ability to use it in a way that makes us happy.

It introduces them to ideas on minimalism and the growing movement towards it (with a short video). It also uses a video to introduce them to research that suggests money can indeed make you happy, but when you don’t spend it on yourself. 

What if we could get students to not aspire towards money for money’s sake only (which is fine by the way) but also as a tool to ensure experiences that allow them to have more fulfilling lives?

The cost of living

Why our students need to know how much its costs to live in the UK?

According to Revolut the average cost of living in the UK is as follows:

  • £2,249 per month for a single person; and
  • £3,803 per month for a family of four.

This makes the UK the 7th most expensive country Western Europe.

Of course there is an ongoing argument about whether this is a true reflection and what is included in the cost of living in the UK. Are cinema tickets essential? How many TV subscriptions does the average person need?

Throughout my career in education I have run an exercise to help students calculate cost of living based on their expectation. I should highlight here that it is not without its flaws. I am not aware of future inflation rates (which is why I always highlight that inflation will continue to make living costs higher and the importance of minimum wage reflecting this rise in cost of living). However what it does do for students is give them some idea of what things cost and what the life they have dreamed up for themselves costs.

Why do students need to know about cost of living?

Awareness – In order to ensure we are creating a culture of responsible and able citizens that can participate in society and are well informed.

Motivation – Needless to say, many times, when I complete this activity students are left shocked at how much money they would need to earn in order to live the life they want. For many this makes them rethink the career they want to go into and aspire to something more. For some it makes them question whether the life they see on social media and influencers living is actually real.

Expectations – I believe we have a moral responsibility to both encourage our students to dream big and understand the real lay of the land so they are not surprised by life when they leave school but in command of it.

Cost/benefit analysis – Without the cost of living many schools expect students to make important decisions about life – like whether they should go to university or do an apprenticeship. As adults we often have to work backwards from the goal in life to put in actions that will get us there. Why is it any different for our students?

Helping disadvantaged students – The way money is spoken about (if spoken about at all), budgeted, and the purchases prioritised will vary home to home but also whether our students come from a background where parents rely on the government for financial support. The freedom they will have had to make financial decisions will vary as a result. We must ensure that our students, who we want to be active participants in the economy are equipped with the ability to make financial decisions that their parents may not have been able to.

The activity 

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