According to UCAS, almost 40% of UK 18-year-olds headed off to university in 2022 – which is the second highest entry level on record. Getting a degree still opens doors: wider career prospects, higher salaries and, in the eyes of employers, a belief that applicants with a degree are more ‘job-ready’.
Despite this, students are increasingly concerned that a degree no longer represents good value for money. The Public Attitudes to Higher Education Report 2022, by the UPP Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), found that 32% of young people aged 18-24 believe that ‘a university degree is a waste of time', and 71% agree that the Cost of Living crisis will deter people from going to university in the next few years.
Last year, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) received a record number of student complaints about university courses for the fourth year running, and over 10,000 students have recently begun a legal case with Student Group Claim against a number of UK universities, over a lack of teaching as a result of Covid lockdowns and strikes.
With soaring student loans, reduced contact time, and eye-wateringly expensive student accommodation, is getting a degree still worth the inevitable student debt?
How much does it cost to go to university?
It’s difficult to give an exact figure, as the true cost varies depending on the area of study, where you live in the UK and the duration of the course. However, research by the National Student Money Service (NSMS) estimates an approximate total cost of £61,000 for students in England for the entire degree. This is based on average tuition costs of £9,250 per year and an average annual cost of living of £11,088. The situation is slightly different for Scottish students, whose tuition is free if they study in their home country. Similarly, Northern Irish students who study in Northern Ireland pay around half the amount (£4,710 per year) of students in other parts of the UK.
How to pay for university
To help pay for university, almost all first-time students in the UK are entitled to a tuition fee loan, which will cover the cost of their tuition in full. Most students are also eligible for a maintenance loan, which is calculated according to where they are living and their parents’ household income. These loans haven’t kept pace with inflation, so the NSMS found that maintenance loans now cover little more than half of the average student’s monthly living costs. As a result, most students also need an overdraft, a part-time job and/or some extra help from their parents to make ends meet.
Will you earn more if you go to university?
Research indicates that graduates do earn more than non-graduates. Data from the Department of Education shows the median salary for graduates over their entire working career is £34,000, whereas the median wage for a non-graduate is £25,000.
That said, it’s important to consider the bigger picture. Many students thrive and excel at university. They not only discover a passion for lifelong learning but also build networks they will use throughout their lives and gain qualifications for specific careers such as medicine, law and engineering.
Alongside this, university gives young people a taste of real life and independence, exposing them to different kinds of people and honing life skills, such as resilience, managing finances, self-care and problem-solving.
Is a university degree worth the cost?
The downside of going to university is, of course, the lifetime cost of getting a degree. From 2023, new students will repay 9% of everything they earn over £25,000. Unless their earnings drop below that threshold, they will need to keep up repayments until the loan is cleared or 40 years have passed, whichever comes first. Interest will be added to the amount they owe, but having a student loan doesn't affect their credit rating.
An opinion poll by YouGov found that just over half of those surveyed said the current fees in England and Wales are bad value for money, and 69% of graduates say £9,250 a year represents bad value.
The main reason for this is the lack of contact time. Unlike school and sixth-form colleges, many university courses offer less contact time with tutors. The general push toward independent study can mean as little as 10 hours a week for some courses, meaning the hefty tuition fees don’t always offer value for money.
The cost of university can be daunting for parents who themselves benefited from free university tuition and student grants and never had to consider whether they were getting their money’s worth – or the implications of starting their working life tens of thousands of pounds in debt. For this reason, it’s worth weighing up the benefits of getting a degree, especially for teens who aren’t certain if university is the right fit for them.
What are the alternatives to university?
Depending on the career path potential students want to follow, there may be other options aside from a traditional degree.
Degree apprenticeships combine full-time work with part-time undergraduate study. Students gain a degree and real-world work experience while earning a salary of around £20 - 30k, while the employer pays the tuition fees. All degree apprenticeships offer a full degree or degree-level qualification and go up to master's level. They take 3–5 years to complete, depending on the course, and students typically attend university one day a week and work four days for their employers. They are offered by some of the biggest global companies, such as Amazon, Estee Lauder, Mace, Pfizer, Barclays, Expedia, Google, Goldman Sachs and O2. The degrees and job experience range from software to cyber security, marketing, public relations, business, data science and banking.
Higher Apprenticeships are designed for those who want to gain work experience, qualifications, and experience in a particular industry. Apprentices will spend most of their time doing on-the-job training and the rest studying with a college or training provider. They are an ideal next step for students who have achieved a minimum of two A-Levels, and take 30 months to complete. They are equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate degree, a foundation degree, or a Higher National Diploma (HND).
Traineeships have no set entry requirements, so they’re best for those lacking the qualifications or experience needed for an apprenticeship. They are short courses with work experience which are designed to prepare students for an apprenticeship or full-time work.
Is getting a degree still important?
While specific careers like medicine and law will always need a higher qualification, the job-search site Glassdoor has compiled a list of employers who no longer require applicants to have a degree. Companies like Google, Meta, Apple, Royal Bank of Scotland and IBM are all in this group.
That said, a degree will support an application even if it isn't necessary. Many jobs that don't require degrees, such as security and city traders, have graduate schemes, so they often overlook applicants without a degree.
It also very much depends on what your child’s career goals are. If they want to work in an industry where a degree is needed, then going to university is very much worth the money.
Obviously, there’s no guarantee that getting a degree will lead to a job, but the latest government figures show that graduates continue to have higher employment rates than non-graduates. The vice-chancellors' advocacy body, which is the collective voice for 140 UK universities, found that graduate vacancies are 20% higher than in 2019, while the latest report from the Institute of Student Employers predicts that job vacancies for graduates will increase by more than a fifth.
Overall, it’s never been more important for young people to weigh up all their options and consider the lifetime cost of gaining a degree – along with the value of having the student experience, which is much harder to measure.