Brightest kids shun university, says top head

Universal? Nearly 600,000 people applied to UK higher education courses at all levels in 2016.

A prestigious school’s headteacher has cast doubt on the value of degrees. He says education should prepare children for the world of work. Are we too quick to send students to university?

‘After God had carried us safe to New England… one of the next things we longed for and looked for was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.’

In 1643, Harvard College sent these words to England, in the first university fundraising brochure. Its message still resonates today: in 2014, over a third of the global student-age population were in higher education.

In the UK, more 18-year-olds than ever gained a university place last year. Participation rates have risen especially quickly since Tony Blair, then prime minister, pledged to get 50% of young people to university in 1999. And more students now come from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds.

But is this good for young people? Yesterday Tim Firth, head of the prestigious Wrekin College in Shropshire, said some of the brightest students now shunned higher education.

‘University is not the only option,’ he said. ‘Too often it has placed unnecessary pressure on youngsters, including the most gifted and able academically, to suggest there is only one path.’ Education, he added, should provide students with ‘the skills to cope with real life’.

Firth, whose school has just spent £1m on a new business facility, is part of a growing backlash. Last year the OECD said too many people with ‘low basic skills’ were undermining the ‘currency’ of degrees in England. Another report found 58% of UK graduates were over-educated for their first job, and graduates in some subjects earned less than those without degrees.

And is university now too expensive? Since 1998 tuition fees have risen fast. Some university professors say this has encouraged consumerism, as students prioritise value for money over the expansion of knowledge. In one survey, 37% of graduates said they regretted attending university, mainly because of the debt it created.

Meanwhile the government has shifted its focus to other options — such as creating three million apprenticeships by 2020. So are we encouraging too many people to get degrees?

The nth degree

Yes, say some. A degree is just a piece of paper, which becomes less valuable when more people have them. Young people are getting into vast debt and studying subjects which are of little use to employers. People learn more by dealing with clients and bosses, or using their own initiative, than by spending three years writing a few essays.

Easy for some to say, others retort. But getting a degree is still a great achievement. It is a precious chance for students to explore a subject that interests them. Employers still hire graduates because of the ability to think analytically and to be self-disciplined. And for the less well off, going to university can be life-changing.

You Decide

  1. Do you want to go to university?
  2. Do too many people in your country go to university?


  1. Think of a job that interests you. Write a one-page advert for it, listing the skills you would need to do it. Discuss: would going to university help you get, or show off, these skills?
  2. Conduct an interview with someone who went to university, and another with an adult who did not. How do they reflect on their decision now? What can you learn from their experience? Report back to your class.

Some People Say...

“There is nothing more valuable than the pursuit of knowledge.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not applying for university at the moment.
Even if you are a little young to decide on your future now, you will face a choice in a few years’ time. Besides, this is about more than just getting a degree — it is about the purpose of education, and how to improve chances of success in later life. Should you use your education to find out about things you like, in depth? Or should you focus on gaining skills you need for work?
I’m not British — does this affect me?
Similar debates occur around the world. More than 50 countries now have over 50% of their student-age population in higher education. That number has gone up rapidly in the last 20 years. And in such countries as the USA, a college education can cost more than in the UK (especially when living and tuition costs are combined).

Word Watch

According to the World Bank, the global tertiary enrolment ratio was 34% in 2014 — a rise from 14% in 1992.
State schools
According to Universities UK, 77.2% of undergraduates were from state schools in 2016.
Universities UK says 19.5% of young people from low-participation neighbourhoods entered higher education in 2016 — up from 11.2% in 2006.
Similar concerns have been raised elsewhere. In Australia Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of a group of leading universities, even called for a slowdown in the growth in places. She said ‘university isn’t for everyone’ and cited ‘areas of significant graduate oversupply’ in the labour market.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 35 countries which promotes economic growth.
By the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a group for people working in human resources.
The fees were introduced in 1998 at £1,000. In 2006 they rose to £3,000; in 2012 they were capped at £9,000. This year they will rise to £9,250.
According to insurance company Aviva.


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