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University has become an unaffordable luxury

University graduates on the conveyor belt back in the 1950s

I think going to university is now too expensive, time consuming, restrictive and potentially soul-destroying for people with talent to bother with anymore.

University has become a terrible deal, and most ambitious people shouldn’t go.

There, I said it.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to admit to myself that tuition fees, student loans, and the fact that any muppet who can write his or her own name now goes to university means it’s a waste of time to do so.

I suppose it’s because education is one of the central beliefs of being middle class in the Britain today.

Coming from a more working class background – with parents who strongly believed in education – it feels like pissing on the family photo album to make the case against going to university.

So be it.

I was among the first generation of my family to go to university. I benefited from a grant, and I didn’t have to pay fees. I invested my student loans.

My father, in contrast, got a scholarship to grammar school but when the time came to discuss whether he’d go to university – he said it wasn’t even raised. All his life he worked alongside people with degrees and Phds, wishing he had one.

That’s not an appeal to bring out the tiny violins.

It is to stress that I don’t lightly challenge the ubiquitous goal of going to university for youngsters with a bit of ambition.

And it’s to explain that I’m not some elitist snob for thinking it’s a positive sign that the craving for a university education may be fading at last.

Warning: This is a strident piece, aimed at provoking and inspiring those who want to do something different with their lives (whether it’s start a business, get rich, be financially free, or something unrelated to money). If you want to be normal, go to university and get into debt.

How I wasted my time from 18 to 21

It’s not as if I didn’t have a strong hint from my own university experience that it could potentially be a waste of time.

Having never enjoyed school, the first thing I did when I arrived at my top-flight university was to confirm I didn’t need to show up everyday in order to stay there.

No class register, no need to turn up!

I then proceeded to spend most of the next three years discovering women, music, poetry, and London. I read the NME over lecture notes, and created my own magazines and fanzines.

When I did go to lectures, I was spectacularly uninspired by all but about three of my tutors. Most were nice, smart people, but they spent a long time getting through a small part of the vast volumes of textbooks the university obliged me to acquire. There was also lots of diversionary tutorial-style stuff which wasn’t in the textbooks or on the syllabus – theoretically an advantage of a top-tier university education, but not great for passing exams.

“I was spectacularly uninspired by all but about three of my tutors.”

I didn’t waste my time with that. Instead I mainly crammed three or four weeks before the exams, and came out with a good degree.

I did a science / engineering degree, by the way – a terrible mistake for me, personally, which is another reason why you shouldn’t ask a 16-year old to decide where they want to waste three years of their life at great cost. Anyway, it wasn’t a less time-consuming arts degree, let alone something deeply spurious like a photography course or a diploma in fashion, so I had plenty of lectures to go to.

I just didn’t attend them, and it has never mattered since.

This isn’t a story about how I’m so smart that I didn’t need to be educated by lecturers. I was an idiot who sometimes didn’t know what exam I faced that day. I thought I knew more about life through literature than living it, and I made plenty of mistakes. But I was smart enough to realise it was more efficient to learn what I needed to know to pass my degree from books and friends than by sitting in lecture halls.

I’m also not ranting against a bad education. My alma mater is regularly named as among the best couple of dozen or so places in the world to go to university.

I ate caviar from the top table of the education system. I would have been better off skipping it for noodles from a Thai street vendor.

You don’t skip three years of life if you skip University

What about the wider university experience?

You know, quoting Oscar Wilde to bosom buddies under the clock tower at midnight, or meeting pioneering researchers, or simply learning not to be a teenage moron?

I think educated people mistake the progress they make growing up from 18 to 21 or 22 or 23 for the virtues of attending university.

You’d have made most of that progress anyway, as long as you weren’t stuck stacking shelves or masturbating between World of Warcraft sessions.

You can listen to inspiring people at the free lectures that happen in London and elsewhere every single day, or simply watch the TED lectures.

There’s an embarrassment of material out there that’s better than you’ll get in 95% of universities. And the Internet has made it easy to connect with like-minded individuals, too, whatever you want to learn more about. Why study alongside the third-rate when you can learn and even work with the best?

It’s true I met really interesting and stimulating people when I was in university.

However, they were also all idiots, just like any other 18-year olds and just like I was. Better to have met them in a job when they were older and wiser, or better yet in the field pursuing the same passion as me.

True, I did extracurricular activities in university that eventually helped me escape my dumb degree choice.

But were those opportunities a good reason to go in the first place? Why not cut out the middleman?

Too smart or too dumb to make education worth it

I’m not saying you don’t need to go to university because life is easy.

The truth is it hasn’t been so challenging for the young to collect and pay for the baubles of a supposedly respectable life – money, a house, a life partner, kids and a pension – since at least the 1940s.

What I am saying is that for most young people, university is no longer useful in helping you get there.

  • Smart and tenacious people will waste three years when they could have been learning useful stuff in the real world (such as making contacts, and learning how to answer a phone in an office and be nice to workmates).
  • Average people will be helped in the short term, but at the cost of £50,000 or so of student debts and spending most of their 20s and 30s paying it off, when instead they might have been discovering how not to be an average person.
  • Intellectually mediocre people are probably better off chasing money from the start. There’s plenty of money out there in sales, various trades, or starting your own business and employing smart people who don’t know any better, or taking on average people with huge debts to service.
  • Lazy people will find £50,000 buys a lot more food and beer in the Far East.

Note that if instead of going to university you simply doss about town or take a minimum wage job and do nothing on the side, then it’s possible – though not guaranteed – that you’d have been better off getting a degree and a lot of debt.

The world is tough, and you need to compete in it.

I’m just saying a degree isn’t anything like a free pass to success anymore.

The people who SHOULD go to university

There are a few people who should go to university – even though everyone who tries a bit now goes, and even though it’ll cost most of them a small fortune they can’t afford and stifle them with debt.

People who should go to university include:

  • Rich kids without any better ideas.
  • Anyone with a scholarship that pays for university, provided they are passionate (talented classical musicians, for example).
  • Someone who is ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN a particular career is for them, and that it needs a degree (would-be doctors, for instance).
  • University lecturers who get paid to turn up and teach students.
  • People who get paid to clean up after students and university lecturers.
  • Pretty girls with sugar daddies, to avoid being dull.
  • Anyone attending the conferences that universities host to make extra money.
  • Foreign students who help bring down our deficit by spending money here.

Almost everyone else should do something else.

Over-burdened bright young things

What if you’re especially academically gifted? Surely you should go to university?

If this were the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s, then I’d wholeheartedly agree.

Back then society, recognising your brains and your potential, would pluck you from the conveyor belt that was taking the others from cradle to grave via a mundane job for life, and expose you to new ideas, people, and opportunities.

And you wouldn’t even have to pay for it!

That’s the cherished cultural ideal of universities that makes it so hard for older people to admit that you shouldn’t rack up 5-10 years of your likely disposable income to pay off the debts you’ll get for going there today.

It was great back then. But it’s not like that anymore.

Today’s smart kids are so thoroughly brainwashed by the myth of educational excellence, so terrified of doing anything other than collecting qualifications and certificates, and so secretly fearful that everyone around them is cleverer and working harder than them, that they’d make a slave in a Siberian labour camp blush with guilt.

“That’s the cherished cultural ideal of universities that makes it so hard for older people to admit that you shouldn’t rack up 5-10 years disposable in debt.”

I’ve met these clever kids at the end of their university careers. They’re a weird mix of bewildered and arrogant, insecure and self-entitled. Many are borderline unemployable for a bit, and are more or less humoured in their first workplaces.

Oh most still go on to get decent jobs and so on, eventually. I’m not saying university is deadly, just that it’s dangerous, delusional, pointless, and wasteful – getting a degree is in that sense a bit like recreational drugs.

I can’t help thinking many of them would have been better off – certainly happier – if they’d skipped the whole farce.

I’m not sure what society gets out of it all, either. The innovation keeping us ahead of the Chinese and the Indians is mostly achieved by creative mavericks and dropouts, not by well-educated drones.

Maybe the mavericks need well-educated drones as workers? Or maybe we’d do better to encourage more mavericks.

Anyway, who cares what society needs.

This is your life we’re talking about, or the life of someone you care about. Think hard before you plump for over-education.

The rich dropouts

On the subject of mavericks and outsiders, I used to think university dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and the many others who achieve enormous wealth despite not learning to pass exams were the exceptions that proved the rule.

But as I’ve got older I’ve met a lot of self-made millionaires. I even count a handful among my friends.

Off the top of my head I can think of three millionaire friends or close associates who either went straight into work at 18 or else dropped out of university.

In contrast, I have one millionaire friend who dutifully did the super-educational thing. But he became a millionaire by being a banker, which is about the only way university still pays really big time, in the short run anyway.

Of course I know other people who completed university and became rich. My last boss is one, although the tens of millions he’s worth has nothing to do with his first class education.

He started his business on the side, while still at university, and that’s what made him rich.

Most of the other millionaire graduates I’ve met trace their success to taking a risk and doing something different – going into business, mainly – rather than to a degree.

Nearly all of these entrepreneurs could have started the careers at 18 and got the initial experience and contacts they used that way. A few could have simply read some books, got networking on the Internet, and skipped a first job in an office altogether.

University challenged

There are so many objections to the notion that university is a bad idea that it would take a university lecturer three months to drone through them all.

Let’s consider some.

How can I get a job without qualifications?

The sad truth is getting any job worth having is hard, and mainly comes down to experience and contacts. The sooner you can get those the better.

Kids choose fun but futile degrees in media or photography or fashion to try to get interesting jobs, but employers will still demand you work for free for months – if you’re very lucky – anyway.

Ignore the glossy university brochures. I’ve met many people who did these degrees, at great cost, who now work in the accounts department or similar.

Start doing what you want to do at 18, and be brilliant, if you must have a 9-5 job. Personally, I’d try finding some other way to make money.

What about jobs that demand qualifications?

It’s true that many businesses now recruit ‘graduates only’.

Given nearly everyone who can write and pay for a pint of milk is a graduate these days, that’s not exactly an intimidating hurdle – unless you’ve followed the advice of this article and skipped getting a degree altogether, in which case you’ll be momentarily stumped.

Ideally, I say avoid these sorts of jobs.

I saw on the news yesterday that Nestle is building an ‘academy’ at its new factory. If a chocolate maker feels it needs to train its own staff rather than leave it to universities, you should seriously wonder about the usefulness of what you’ll actually learn at them, as well as the competency of any company demanding evidence of a degree from you.

But if you must get a degree to do what you really want to do (are you sure?), then do it cheap by living with your parents, and having a part-time job instead of going to lectures. Read textbooks instead.

Or perhaps buy a degree on the Internet.

I want to do something that REALLY needs qualifications!

Okay, certain professions require teaching: I don’t want to have my heart operated on by someone who bluffed through exams using Wikipedia.

If you really want to be a vet, a doctor, or an architect – and I mean REALLY want to be one – then university is worth the cost.

You don’t need to necessarily start at 18, though.

One of my best friends did something really inspiring the other day. He left his cushy job in engineering – and a salary – to pursue his dream of a career in medicine.

At the age of 40! I was blown away.

How much better though that he does this at 40, when he knows what he wants, rather than sleepwalking at 18 into becoming an embittered box-ticking NHS robot who wishes he’d chosen to do something other than sticking his finger up bottoms all day.

I’ve met these lordly consultants and registrars, and I suspect many would be better for having lived a bit before becoming doctors, or at least for taking a career break.

My friend was an idiot at 18. No matter, I was there, and I was an idiot, too.

If you’re not taking advantage of what being 18 means and being a bit of a moron, then you’re doing something wrong.

Much more wrong than choosing not to waste £50,000 going to university.

I want to meet interesting people!

I have nothing against this aspiration, and I should pursue it more myself.

But it’s not a good reason to go to university.

You’ll notice heavyweight magazines like Prospect or The Economist or The London Review of Books don’t stuff their pages full of interviews with 18-year olds. Charlie Rose does not interview undergraduates. The opinions of first-year students are not called upon at economic summits, or celebrated by the Nobel Prize committee.

That’s because 18-year olds who’ve done nothing but study all their lives are pretty boring. Rich in many ways, but dull.

Reality TV programmes like Big Brother feature young men and women sitting about dissecting their mundane sexual woes while drinking endless cups of tea all day.

If that’s your idea of interesting people, you’ll love university.

You earn more if you’ve got a degree

This one is hard to argue, in that it’s statistically true. However, it’s also statistically meaningless. Only someone with a university education could think it was important.

Given that most of the brightest, ambitious people – not to mention the most privileged – go to university, it’s hardly surprising that the same cohort goes on to earn more money.

But this tells us nothing about the bright and ambitious people who do something else. We can only look to anecdotal evidence, like all the self-made entrepreneurs who seem to do just fine without spending three years being lectured by people who can’t do but do teach.

Besides, the education pay gap is shrinking every year. At this rate people who avoid university will end up financially ahead, once you take into account the cost of a degree.

That’ll be pretty funny – I can’t wait to hear the excuses.

Much-quoted data from the pre-fee charging era suggests an income premium over a working life for degree holders of £100,000. But that data didn’t factor in debts or fees, even before the recent massive hike.

So the jury is out on whether degrees will pay in the future, especially if you’re a man:

If tuition fees rise to £7000, degrees in the arts, humanities and non-economics social sciences will be bad investments for men. The cost of getting them will exceed the uplift in future earnings.

What’s more, at a higher discount rate on future earnings, or in the bottom 25% of graduate earnings, even degrees in science, technology and engineering will have negative pay-offs for men.

Most degrees still result in higher salaries for women according to the same research, but there are clearly a host of other factors at play here.

If you are set on getting a degree for money, do law or economics or similar, and try very hard to get a First!

I am passionately into something weird

There’s been this big invention in recent years. It’s called the Internet.

You no longer need to go to university if you’re a bit different or want to learn more about something weird. So don’t bother.

Being weird is brilliant and marketable these days, but it can’t be taught.

I want to transcend my poor / limiting background

I feel for you. There is still a class divide in this country, and I believe social mobility is declining.

Young people who grow up in wealthy households in the South East or in the privileged enclaves dotted around the country really have no idea how lucky they are, or how the other 90% live. If they are privately educated it’s even worse.

If you’re in a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive school on the outskirts of Middling Town, UK, your family probably doesn’t know lawyers or company CEOs – let alone the investment bankers, media geniuses, and entrepreneurs who are really doing well these days.

It’s very different for the lucky kids with high-flying aunts, uncles, and neighbours.

The rich are pulling away from the rest of society. The denigration of university education has taken away one of the few ways a clever, poorer young person could vault up the rungs.

From internships for the children of mates to crippling rents in London where the action is, opportunity is being closed down, not opened up, by these social trends.

I agree with all that. I just question whether a degree and a shedload of debt is going to help you. Especially if you do an arty degree and plan to work in media, fashion, music, design, or anything like that.

Your best bet escape route degree-wise is to do the most solid degree you can – preferably law, economics, science, or engineering-based – at one of the top universities in the country.

A degree in social science from somewhere nobody has heard of is going to land you back home on the shopfloor at Debenhams quicker than you can say: “Three years, £50,000 in debt, and all I’ve got is a chip on my shoulder”.

I want to be a grown up

The final recourse of the university defenders is it teaches kids how to be adults, and to live in the real world.

Such a laughable idea, I don’t know where to start.

Besides being grossly unfair to those poor dolts who skip university yet still somehow manage to drive cars and be polite to checkout assistants, it’s a pathetic justification for spending £50,000 moving from one town to another only to hang around with similar people learning lots of things you’ll never need to know again.

There are many more interesting ways to bridge the gap between self-obsessed 18-year old and a slightly less self-obsessed 21-year old than attending university.

There’s the now-ubiquitous gap year, for a start. I have come full circle on this – I thought it was a waste of time and money when I was a student, but 20 years on it seems like brilliant value.

People work all their lives so they can retire and take the trip of a lifetime. Why not take the trip when you’re 18, and learn to wash your own socks and make other people cups of tea along the way – just like in a hall of residence, but with better scenery?

Enjoy yourselves, then get a job, and count yourself £40,000 up on the deal.

University: A poor investment

I should have twigged the notion that everyone should go to university was a bad idea when it was championed by the last government.

Almost the definition of a good idea blown out of proportion is a modern socialist party’s manifesto – whether it’s state pensions, the NHS, worker’s rights, anti-discrimination, or the idea that everyone should be an A* student with a degree.

All brilliant ideas in theory – but absurd in extremis.

Cynics may say the Left’s championing of university is all part of some political game, but I’m prepared to give politicians the benefit of the doubt.

Most well-meaning people still think we need to send everyone possible to university. Practically everyone thought so 20 years ago, including me.

But times move on. The very popularity of the idea that everyone should get a degree has become its own downfall, by making degrees too expensive to teach and too trivial to count for much.

About the only thing that gives me pause in writing this piece is, as I said at the start, the thought of my parents, who glowed when I graduated and who spent some money on supporting me there, only for me to abstain from the whole debacle.

“The very popularity of the idea that everyone should leave school for university has become its own downfall.”

But we all make mistakes when we’re young.

It would be a bigger mistake to encourage more young people to waste their time and money getting a degree, out of some sense of guilt.

Remember: I didn’t even have to pay for my university education. Tuition was free, and a grant (and frugal habits) met most of my living expenses. Yet I still think it was a bad deal.

Imagine if I’d spent £50,000 on it!

Compound the £50,000 you’ll spend on university in a tracker fund for 50 years earning a little less than the average real return from UK shares of 5%, and you’ll have nearly £600,000!

Good luck beating that with your superior qualifications.

Unqualified opinion

Most young people won’t listen to me, which is fine – it leaves more room for those prepared to think different to seek the many other genuine opportunities out there.

Most of us are too old now to benefit from making a different choice anyway, whether you agree with me or not.

So it’s up to us to help the young at least think about their options.

Got children yourself, or plan to? According to research from the financial firm rplan, a child born this year will likely cost £123,000 to put through university.

My advice is to move somewhere vaguely affordable that has a decent university nearby, build your kids an annexe with its own entrance for when they’re 18, and encourage them to stay and study at home. You might just turn a liability into an asset.

Oh, and have one fewer child than you planned to. (You’ll be happier, anyway.)

If you agree with my argument that more young people shouldn’t go to university – not with all of it, but enough to give someone pause before starting adult life in hock to The Man – then please press the ‘Like’ button below, or Tweet it, or send it to some young person you know. You might just save a life!

{ 113 comments… add one }
  • 1 Alex January 31, 2012, 6:54 pm


  • 2 Ben January 31, 2012, 7:03 pm

    haha – incendiary stuff (have you been reading Ferris?)

    You missed moving to Scotland and getting everything for free off your list of options, only driving snow and midges to deal with (oh and the Scots)

    Plus it will all be free again anyway in twenty years time due to the ‘swings and roundabouts’ hypothesis, but only 5% will attend

    Also, you do understand that a nation of entrepreneurs would be devastating for the Welfare State?

    I think we may be on the cusp of a shrinking of the rich-poor divide now as well – my prediction is we will see it diminish over the next 15 years with 2012 representing ‘highwater mark’ in disparity (I could be out by as much as 5 years though with this)

  • 3 James January 31, 2012, 7:25 pm

    Good stuff.

    As a 30 year old graduate still paying back my loan from when they weren’t too bad (£1000 pa tuition fees, very low interest on the loan), I totally agree with this.

    I advise any aspiring university students to think very hard about taking on this level of financial obligation.

    I would work my way up the career ladder and study part time (either free courses or Open University if you really want the piece of paper or letters after your name).

    The tuition fees and loan repayments are now another tax to feed the Ponzi scheme that is the financial system of our modern society.

  • 4 James January 31, 2012, 7:27 pm

    Oh, and I think you mean “one LESS child” at the end of your article:

    “Oh, and have one child than you planned to. (You’ll be happier, anyway.)”

  • 5 Rob January 31, 2012, 8:45 pm

    Just in my last few months of University now and I can clarify for you that it is an utter waste of time (and I’m not bitter I do pretty well). I think either two things need to happen:

    1. They should stop worrying about grades. Once upon a time in a University in a land far, far away called America there were some graduates who were given a pretty free reign over their work and not subjected to ingesting and regurgitating knowledge. Instead of this fruitless labour they built a page ranking system which eventually became a search engine which they called Google.

    I’ve learnt 100 times as much from side activities as I have from University and boy oh boy do I enjoy them more. Unless University becomes about building an environment in which individual thought can thrive, i.e. building a breeding ground for young entrepreneurial talent in all areas (not just business) its largely a waste of time for most courses. I will concede that it does motivate you to do other tasks by making you realise just how dull being a Company Man will be.

    2. Hopefully with the higher tuition fees there will be a reason for not going so that more jobs will take non-graduates. However, essentially the point of University is to see what extreme you will put yourself to in order to essentially show how much you want a job. The more you break your soul (i.e. by doing Economics) the more likely you are to get a job where they can be sure that you’ll turn into a fine Company Man.

    Yep, for sure there’s more out there…

    Incidentally, have you considered the cost of both private school (this I did not partake in) and University?… I believe on the total fees you’d earn enough annual interest to essentially not need a job. I believe the two will total in many cases as much as £250k or at 5%, £12.5k… which given the tax on investments would be enough to live on frugally.

  • 6 The Investor January 31, 2012, 10:50 pm

    @James – Thanks for sharing your experiences and also the typo. Fixed the latter, in a way my English teacher would have preferred… 🙂 Wish I could do something about the former.

    @Alex – Er, I’ll take that as a “wow”. 😉

    @Ben – Ferris Bueller maybe! (Read Tim Ferris ages ago, and agree with him to a point… I think at the cheap end of what he’s saying you’re basically talking hucksterism, but there’s no reason his principles (and more hours a week!) can’t be part of leveraging your talent to create something big and worthwhile).

    @Rob – I don’t believe parents who’d otherwise stump up for a private education and university would consider £12K per year a satisfactory outcome! 😉 I have some sympathy for parents who despair of unruly (the biggest problem IMHO) or unambitious state schools, especially as so much of the liberal intelligensia talks up the state education sector then sends their kids to a private or grammar school as ‘a matter of conscience’. Guffaw. You’ve got to approve of the likes of Paul McCartney for standing up for his principles with his kids.

  • 7 Rob February 1, 2012, 12:14 am

    @TheInvestor – you’d actually be surprised… a remarkable number of private school students one parents income goes to private school and they’re actually not that well off, but “they’re doing their best for their kids” whilst living in good areas. Like University its about doing what’s ‘best’. The sum of money they could give them at 18 against a private school education has to make up for any ‘loss of future income’.

  • 8 ermine February 1, 2012, 1:04 am

    This is inspired. You have just left a lot of also-rans in the dust. Good on you. Passion, integrity, and brilliant writing. Oh yeah, and you might just be right, too 😉

    Awesome. Pithy. And to the point…

  • 9 cw February 1, 2012, 1:28 am

    I agree with most of this…though I would recommend anyone who got in to Oxbridge to take the opportunity.

    Smart companies should be actively looking out for the best 18 year olds, as the sharpest / shrewdest business people may well be looking to start at 18 if they can.

    Your article is an argument in favour of tuition fees by the way, as why should Mr and Mrs Taxpayer pay for Joe Bloggs to go to university, if it doesn’t make financial sense for him to pay it himself.

  • 10 DNA February 1, 2012, 2:00 am

    I don’t disagree that one can become a multi-millionaire without school, but in my org a good number of the original staff (who’ve been around 15 yrs) are PhDs, MDs and dual doctorates like myself and we are all multi-millionaires. The founders, all of whom have master’s degrees, are billionaires. I think a lot depends on what you study.

  • 11 maria@moneyprinciple February 1, 2012, 8:52 am

    I think we should distinguish between two things: education and knowledge and universities. We need education and knowledge – btw, whilst major innovations come from mavericks the knowledge (sometimes immense) behind these comes from boring, autistic scientists and academics. Not to mention that ‘finishing’ the innovation and getting it in use is usually done by highly knowlegdeable and skilled people (with many letters before and after their names). Incidently, T. Ferris proudly mention in his book that he lectures in Harvard!

    Universities in the UK, on the other hand, started losing their capacity to offer the kind of education that we as society need about 25 years ago – with the advent of the neo-liberal state and a range of policies. One of these is the ’employability agenda’ which assumes that narrow and specific skills is what makes people employable. Univesities have lists of skills they develop – problem is that in a fast moving world these skill are obsolete very fast; in fact, generic competences are what makes us adaptable enough to be able to change skills and be employable.

    First, political pressure (enacted through funding) lead the universities to damage their ‘premium product’. Then they were told they can charge ‘premium fees’. Mad!

    Education is needed (btw, humanities and social sciences as well; otherwise the world can become a very crude place); the organisation(s) that enable learning will change!

    As to people going to university – well, this is still a powerful force for social mobility. I bet that if you look carefully you will spot the competencies that your years there enabled you to develop (of course if you did something on top of the usual women, drink, recover cycle).

  • 12 Ian February 1, 2012, 8:57 am

    What a fantastic article.

    “I’ve met many people who did these degrees, at great cost, who now work in the accounts department or similar.”
    Such a sad sentence but people have swallowed the “you must go to university or you’ll end up on minimum wage for the rest of your life” propaganda.

    I’m a teacher and I regularly tell kids not to bother with university unless they know they really want to be a doctor/dentist/vet/architect/pharmacist/teacher/lawyer etc.

    The weird looks I get from the kids and the “stern conversation” I once got from the Head both tell me I’m saying the right thing.

    For the record I went through a similar argument with him as you have used in this article. I could see the cogs turning but he just couldn’t cope with it… The force is strong.

    The worrying bit is the Conservative government are now talking about judging schools by various new statistics and league tables. The latest one being the number of pupils who progress to university. So the pro-university propaganda will be even stronger. So it’s not just Labour governments.

    As an aside if I had my time all over again I would not have done my physics degree. I’d have done an AAT accounting qualification at the local college and worked part time while doing ACCA and ended up a chartered accountant rather than a lowly physics teacher.

  • 13 Ben February 1, 2012, 9:35 am

    In defence of Uni’s

    I spent about 8 or 9 years at Uni, undergrad, postgrad and post doc

    It was brilliant, great work life balance, fascinating work and I had the privelege of meeting and working with some off the scale geniuses which in itself was an eye-opener

    No chance I could be doing the work I do now (two-man tech start-up) without having done all that first

    So its not all bad perhaps

    (but I didn’t have to pay for any of it though, snuck in just before fees)

  • 14 NotAllBad February 1, 2012, 10:31 am

    I’m strongly in favour of an elitist university system.

    There are only a couple of dozen “real” universities in this country and a similar number of “real” subjects. The rest is largely a waste of time, even if “free” (because your time is worth money, lost opportunity etc.), let alone if you’re expected to pay £30k+ or whatever is these days – only an idiot (financially and more absolutely) would do that.

    I work in a technical area and come across people with no degree in it. These people have huge gaps in their understanding of critical areas of the subject – they simply haven’t had a need to know those areas and blunder through reinventing the wheel (badly) as they go. Such people are not stupid or inexperienced, just ignorant about swathes of a subject they’ve never been forced to grapple with. This is inefficient and is fixed by formal education.

    Ironically, many parents who walk the path of “university is best” for their kids actually never went themselves – it’s the blind leading the blind.

    University at least forces you to cover some breadth of a topic in a structured manner– how else are you going to do it? Buy a few books? Google? Ask you mate?

    Your examples of “successful drop-outs” are survivorship bias – how many people don’t have a degree and are not successful? Quite a lot more than handfuls of Bransons or Gateses who are, I suspect. This also smacks of equating “celebrity culcha” with “success” – while no-one should settle for mediocrity, the reality is the vast majority will end up in the middle (and it’s not a bad life) – the best is the enemy of the good.

    Of course, going to university is not a panacea and the fact it is sold as such is misleading – but you present a false dichotomy here. Success (however you define it) comes from many factors – financial and otherwise. Personally, I think attitude is a huge yet often ignored factor.

    The flip side is, if you think that you are the next Steve Jobs (like 100,000 other 18 year olds this year) then by all means lone-wolf it in your bedroom. But don’t be surprised if you end up working the checkout down Tesco’s left only with stories of how you “nearly made it” while your peers climb the greasy pole at multinationals and out-earn you by 10x.

    In essence, your argument smells of “personal choice elevated to moral imperative” – just because you’ve decided university is a waste of time/money, so should everyone else.

    It’s your life, so be your own person – make informed choices, take responsbility, be inquisitive and don’t believe what you’re told.

  • 15 The Investor February 1, 2012, 10:36 am

    @cw — On balance, agreed provided the student really wants to go there, as opposed to being dragged there. Oxbridge adds some strong non-curricular benefits to your CV — specifically the name opens doors for years to come — although it is also loaded with expectations, good and bad. There’s genuine opportunity to meet interesting and very different people there, too.

    @Maria — If I came across as being anti-education, then I’ve overdone it. I read and learn for 3-4 hours a day, and have done all my life. I’m an autodidact over several fields, to a level where I earn (/have earned) money on the back of it, and where I despair of young students or graduates I meet who’ve supposedly studied the same subject but clearly have no passion for what they were studying (literature and business being the main offenders).

    I agree humanities have a place, but think they should only be studied by the most committed and brilliant students — Oxbridge plus 2-3 other institutions — if only to give those graduates a fighting chance in the workplace. (I know firsts / masters in classics from good universities who work in bookshops. Nothing wrong with bookshops, but they didn’t need four years studying to get there).

    Also, I’m skeptical the art that endures can be taught much, anyway, especially not to the masses. Brilliant artists find a way, and their own teachers. An overly generous unemployment benefits system would probably be more useful/justifiable from a creative output standpoint. (Not advocating that we pay millions to do nothing to get a dozen artists from each generation! Though it worked in the 1980s…)

    @DNA — Thanks for your observation… to be clear I’m not saying university is actively harmful for very bright and ambitious people who’ll follow sufficiently lucrative careers to pay for it. I’m saying it’s not necessary for most outcomes — including entrepreneurial success — and that below the top 5-10% of students say the debt burden probably outweighs the benefit. Definitely agree that some subjects (the ‘hard’ ones, plus economics and law) pay off disproportionately.

    There’s a lot of selectivity bias in our data sets here though — ambitious and clever people do hard degrees, etc. I think they’d succeed anyway.

    @Ben — If you’re doing something you’re extremely interested in (which I presume you were, spending 8-9 years there) than I can see that university would be compelling environment if you don’t have to pay for it. If you’re having to stump up the cash though, well…

    Also, don’t get me started on Post Docs. 😉

    You will know best if you really did need those 8-9 years to begin the start-up, but I suspect if it’s true then it’s because it’s in a very specific field (after all, look at all the tech start-ups founded by dropouts). Beware sunk-cost fallacy!

    But seriously, very good luck with the start-up, would love to hear more as you progress.

    @ermine — Thank you, very generous assessment. (One multi-thousand word polemic I owe you down, one more to go!)

    @Ian — Very brave of you, be careful! I’ve known teachers who get into trouble just for deviating for one lesson a year from the official curriculum, so goodness knows what they’ll do to you for veering off The Big Script. 😉

  • 16 The Investor February 1, 2012, 10:41 am

    @NotAllBad — You’re not my father, are you? Uncanny (and I mean it as a compliment! 🙂 )

    Thanks for making the other side of the argument so cogently. I hope my comments to other readers in the post above rounds out my position a little.

    p.s. And yes — if we had an elitist university system (but which I presume we both mean a meritocratic one, as far as possible) then I wouldn’t have written this post. It’s the combination of a mass higher education and the need for everyone to pay that is so toxic, in my opinion.

  • 17 hotairmail February 1, 2012, 10:56 am

    The governments own calculations fully expect over 75% of females will never repay their student fees.

    And you’ll find many groups have their courses paid for such as nurses, physiologists etc. (this latter quirk is causing the grades required to rise above things like accountancy as state intervention warps the market).

    The rise in fees was basically a desperate attempt to simply put a public debt on the private balance sheet to try and avoid a run on the Pound.

  • 18 maria@moneyprinciple February 1, 2012, 11:14 am

    Forgot to mention something; sorry. It seems to me that a much more basic issue is that in the UK and in the US education is traditionally seen as a privilege; coutries like Finland where education is a right appear to be doing better (economically and culturally).

  • 19 Tim February 1, 2012, 12:07 pm

    I agree with some of your points, especially the one about uninspiring subjects and teaching – I wasn’t a particularly smart or above-average student in my Computer Science course and the teaching and subjects ensured I stayed that way.

    The problem with your idea is that in IT at least pretty much all employers require a degree to get a job. It’s not a matter of ignoring employers who have this requirement, because you’d be left with almost none. Nor is it a matter of employers ‘seeing the light’ and getting rid of this requirement because having a degree ensures at least a minimum level of quality and knowledge in job candidates.

    In IT it’s true that you get a lot of your knowledge & skills from your own experience fiddling around with computers, programming etc., but even so without a formal education you’d have candidates with wildly inconsistent areas of knowledge and huge gaps in some important, but not fun or attractive, knowledge areas. In short getting a degree is necessary but not sufficient to being genuinely employable in a lot of professions and the government shifting the costs of it off the public balance sheet and on to individuals is not necessarily the best way to improve things.

  • 20 Kagem February 1, 2012, 12:25 pm

    Monevator, I just got this now in my inbox so just a thought about your email subscription format with Feedburner, I think it sends emails late.

    Great discussion – I don’t know if I agree though. I know it’s fashionable to be against university but what about the people who are not going to be Bill Gates?

  • 21 Rob February 1, 2012, 12:35 pm

    Kagem – I think there is a role for University as a place where self-creativity can be nurtured, but such a structured learn this and answer this is not the answer. Let’s not forget that Google was born in a University, but only because their supervisor went against the restrictive grading system. It’s a crying shame that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg could not have build their companies within a University environment where they could have had the support of experienced minders.

    Universities just need to embrace more freedom and self-expression… its depressing how confined you are to learning about things that don’t interest you even when you have strong interests elsewhere. They should forget about the grades and just try and nurture talent to its utmost potential.

  • 22 The Investor February 1, 2012, 1:09 pm

    @Rob — That’s an interesting idea (building start-ups in a University as a matter of course). Presumably the university would want an equity stake, but perhaps that’s fair enough if it also seeded the venture. You see this happening at higher levels (Oxbridge, Imperial, MIT etc have spin-off ventures/funds) but it would be bold to push it down to the undergraduate level.

    @Tim — I’m afraid I see IT as a classic example of something that *doesn’t* need a degree anymore. It can mainly be self-taught (with books etc – I just mean not lectures / £50,000) and the Internet is amok with opportunity for bright technical people to make micro-businesses, whether it’s as service providers or micro-developers. I understand you’ll disagree because I have friends in IT who disagree with me, too — despite them having other friends who’ve gone it alone to success.

    If you want to work in the IT department of a bank for a fat salary and a corporate life, then I agree, you’ll need a degree to get in the door. And certainly, proper IT degrees (i.e. computer science from a redbrick, not Spreadsheet Studies or what have you from a former poly) is definitely one of the better degrees to do if Uni is the way you want to go.

    @Kagem — The feedburner email system batches up posts and sends them at around 11-12am every day, regardless of when they’re published. Thanks for the heads-up though! The people who are not going to be Bill Gates — or moreover the mediocre, the bottom 75% for want of a better metric — are exactly the ones I think should think twice about university. Not everyone is academically strong, and lots of them will do better once they start in a job and make a name for themselves. If it wasn’t for the huge debt bill, university might still be in the running as a first step, but with it I think many would be better off trying something bold and different.

  • 23 Dave February 1, 2012, 1:23 pm

    I argue about this with the wife fairly often.

    I’m a software engineer (well, I lead a small team of software engineers, nowadays) and I did it the traditional way through a BSc. However, there are enough awful engineers with degrees that I seriously wonder whether we’re not cutting off our own legs by refusing to consider taking on gifted kids without a degree and training them up.

    They’d be so much cheaper to employ (after all, we’re giving them a gift of £50k+ up front, right?) that we could take on half a dozen every six months, only going permanent with the one who’s best. We’d be laughing, and so would they.

    After even 18 months experience of coding and a good reference, they’d already be more employable (and more effective employees) than computer science graduates like myself.

  • 24 Tim February 1, 2012, 1:29 pm

    @The Investor
    It’s true that you *could* teach yourself everything you need to know from books, websites etc. The problem is it’d take a huge amount of self-discipline and insight into the topics to be able to put together a ‘curriculum’ for yourself that covers all the bases, and doesn’t leave you great in the latest cool stuff but lacking in a lot of the foundational, boring stuff.

    It also has the problem that its next to impossible to prove you’ve done this, and done it well, to an employer – something which having a Uni degree achieves in a stroke.

    I’ve worked for 6 different companies of different sizes (with between 30 and over 5000 employees) and had interviews at many more, none of them anything to do with finance or banking. All of them, esp. the smaller ones, required a Uni degree as a ‘first test’ condition for your candidature to go forwards, simply because they need to ensure you’re up to a certain standard.

    Running your own micro-business can be a good option (and one I’m considering for the future) but with low barriers to entry competition is intense and there are few profitable niches. It also often requires the real-world experience you get in regular jobs. Besides some of us have to be the ones who work in those regular jobs or regular companies.

  • 25 dean February 1, 2012, 1:50 pm

    For some people, as the author points out, university may be a path to consider. But for us average folks who are not aiming for the Nobel Prize in theoretical physics or zoology “the street” is probably a better teacher. I did a degree in a waffle laden subject then qualified as a teacher and worked like a hound for a meagre salary, though I was able to save a fair bit of it cuz I don’t like shopping and I’m too ugly to find a wife. 5 years ago I drew a line under my career and working for other people and purchased a small business that seemed to have a demand and a steady cash flow. Best thing ever did, I doubled my income and quarterd my number of working hours. No degree needed, just some cash and the desire to give it fair shot. As far as I can see there is opportunity and money to earn all around. And if you hold a British passport there are very few places in this world you cannot go! It’s all out there, just go and find it and leave the studies to those who are really going to make a difference at the academic level. Don’t be like me, someone who was just making up the numbers at a posh university. I scraped through but in all honesty shouldn’t have been there. All a bit of a waste of time.

  • 26 Guy February 1, 2012, 3:10 pm

    Brilliant – my favourite bit is “It’s true I met really interesting and stimulating people when I was in university.
    However, they were also all idiots…”

    On a serious note, I paid (thankfully not as much as today’s young unfortunates) to study a 4-year engineering degree, only to discover after 2 years of work (3, including a placement, if I’m honest) that engineering is rubbish. On the positive side, it’s opened doors and is a good grounding for many careers. However, I identify with many of the negatives you mention and suspect I would be a lot wealthier if I’d trained as a plumber or electrician!

  • 27 The Investor February 1, 2012, 4:59 pm

    @Dan — Thanks for your very candid comments. Live and learn, eh?

    @Guy — Engineering is a poor career choice in the UK IMHO, unless you love it to bits. But a good degree in engineering is one of the more worthwhile ones if you’re on the corporate path, as you’re discovering!

    @Tim — True the world needs workers to go around. But I’d rather target my altruism more directly. 😉

  • 28 MCF February 1, 2012, 5:35 pm

    As much as i wish i did not go (because 25k debt and a 2:2 degree have seemingly got me no where in life). It was more of a need. I had 3 poor A-level results and absolutely no idea what i wanted to do with myself. University was an essential stepping stone for me to give me an idea of what the real world is like. It also provided necessary social skills that i did not have at 18.

    I look back on it all (a year and a half ago i graduated) and think wow, that was one big party. But it did provide me with essential social skills and some good academic qualities i can put into practise. I can only hope the degree will also pay its dividends over the years.

    If i had the ambition and direction that i have now, when i was 18, then it would of made no sense at all to go to University…but wouldnt life be great with a crystal ball.

    If the prices werent rocketing up i would recommend it to people, even if it seemingly did not put you at a financial/economical advantage to those who do not. The memories are priceless!

  • 29 Beagle February 1, 2012, 7:36 pm

    @MCF – Basically yes. I graduated a bit longer ago than you (quite a bit). I too was clueless and frankly I mucked about for too long. (more debt might have curtailed that)

    The only thing of reusable value from that time is my degree. It opened doors once I decided to take life seriously and equipped me with a mental toolkit that a person does not get by other means. Yes, some of the facts I learned back then are only deployed when shouting quiz answers at the TV, but the methods and skills I picked up are used daily.

    However I’m back in the UK after 10 years and golf studies is now a degree course…

  • 30 Ben February 1, 2012, 7:40 pm

    Was at a Russel group uni today. Watched a bunch of kids and parents get herded through on an open day. It was really really depressing to watch whilst ruminating over this thread

  • 31 OldPro February 2, 2012, 12:36 pm

    Yes Ben, it was an easier choice by far in my day… for one time I’m pleased to be an old duffer… they have their iphones and youtube to cheer them up no doubt!

  • 32 The Investor February 2, 2012, 9:01 pm

    @OldPro — Wash your mouth out! 😉

  • 33 Ben February 3, 2012, 11:24 am

    A few other observations from academia:

    1. A fresh-faced girl with the get-up-and-go to help out with the open day tours mentioned that she gets 7 hours of tutorials a week as part of her humanities course, the rest being private study. If we assume term time takes up approx 30 weeks of the year then she is personally paying £43 per hour for those tutorials, I think thats startling.

    2. One other thing i noticed when sat in the uni library is that all the dilligent students studying hard are just sitting staring at facebook. It really was on the majority of laptop screens I passed by – for hours…

    I wonder what a colossal waste of time and energy it constitutes across the world and how this will be valued in the upcoming floatation:


    I also wonder whether palliative care analysis will uncover time spent social networking as one of the great regrets of generation Y:


  • 34 JC February 3, 2012, 3:00 pm

    I agree that for many university is a waste of time and money but I think that you’ve overestimated how many people fall into that category.
    I have a science degree and I am currently in the middle of PhD in the same field. When I finish I intend to never work in science again and to move into something more financial and hopefully one day run my own business.
    My undergraduate was useful in as much as:
    I met lots of great people there with similar interests, I moved to a brand new city away from home in subsidised accommodation, I had enough time on my hands to develop my hobbies and socialise, I honed some “transferable” skills, I got a 1st Class degree which I will always be proud of and it gave me the qualifications I needed to get a PhD.

    Pursuing a PhD is great; you get paid a tax free annual salary of approx. £20k (all fees paid for you), you still count as a student (no council tax, student discounts in shops etc.) you get to pursue something that really interests you, you have to become independent pretty quickly, you learn things about yourself and the way you work that can give you an insight into how you might run your own business (as a PhD student you set your timetable and noone cares if you are lazy or incompetent as it’s your problem), and you get to make an impact on our understanding of the world (however small).

    Without university none of this would have been possible. Also later in my life when I have a good salary it would be much harder to give that up to go back to uni.

    I’ve met quite a lot of people my age who went to uni and a lot who didn’t and I think it’s easy to see the difference. Unless you are an entrepreneur: uni=sacrfice now for more money later whilst no uni=money now for lower final salary.

  • 35 Ben February 3, 2012, 4:49 pm


    good point about the post-grad option

    I agree its pretty well paid

    I know many who took a pay cut going from PhD to job

    Shame you can’t go from A-level to PhD – would be economically very attractive. I think the answer is A-levels -> sponsored (paid for) degree -> PhD.

    The icing on the cake would be to drop out of being a post-graduate due to starting up an immensely profitable business like Graham, Brin, Page etc. etc.

  • 36 OldPro February 3, 2012, 5:17 pm

    If many of your friends took a pay cut going from Phd to getting a job… that does not say much for the profitability of getting a Phd now does it…!

    Postgraduate qualifications may be useful in the science fields or perhaps economics… law… I’ve seen friends’ blessed first born etc linger on in University for years doing extra degrees and masters and so forth… one suspects they are scared of the ‘real world’…

  • 37 JC February 3, 2012, 5:27 pm

    There are currently some 4 year PhDs advertised at my university for students straight from undergrad (21 or 22 yrs old) that pay £23,000 / year tax free (equivalent to around £30k taxed) and they don’t pay council tax and all of their savings are tax free (good old R85 form).

    That’s a damn good first wage for someone that age with no work experience and considering you get a PhD at the end!
    The main reason many people take a paycut when they finish is because they make the mistake (in my opinion) of remaining in academia where they are not especially well paid.

    PhDs do get you in to good corporate jobs though, especially if they are quantitative. In the first few chapters of “Liar’s Poker” by Michael Lewis he talks about all the MBAs and PhDs he was working alongside. Things haven’t changed much in that respect since then!

  • 38 Ben February 3, 2012, 6:00 pm


    I had a mate on 30k all tax free at UCL – great wage! especially seeing as you don’t have to do any work for it if you don’t want to. If you compute (lifestyle*salary) for a post-grad you may find that it represents a high water mark never to be experienced again… but thats massively subjective

    I’ve also got mates who became quants and for sure they didn’t take pay cuts

    kicking myself I never thought to fill in an R85…

  • 39 OldPro February 3, 2012, 7:03 pm

    All very well, who would argue with that? Good for him. The little darlings of friends seem to go in more for Italian medieval literature or Polish farming or what have you….

    Not a route to success or repayment I’m sure!

    Yes, the boffins have been in the City for many year now… it’s worked out well right? (Detect some sarcasm… sorry!)

  • 40 Ben February 3, 2012, 8:05 pm

    There could be mileage in buying a degree for ten dollar off t internet then just hitting a phd. I don t think many supervisors would notice. You would be approx £100k up on the deal and get a 3 to 4 year holiday

  • 41 The Accumulator February 4, 2012, 12:25 pm

    Much of this seems to be a good argument for a pre-university course in ‘how to decide whether you should go to university’. I’m still astonished at how little guidance I got, especially considering how spectacularly under-qualified I was to work out what to do with my life at 17.

    Yes, university isn’t the only place you can make your way in life… but then an acquaintance of mine got a job at 18, found himself swimming in cash, didn’t know how to handle it, and ended up an alcoholic. What does that prove? Absolutely nothing.

    I’ll say two things for university:

    1. Nowhere else has given me such an expanse of time and space to learn how to think and make mistakes for myself. School and work life being extremely narrow in focus and ‘acceptable’ mindset. I wonder if this is why so many of the quoted ‘entrepreneurial mavericks’ started their side businesses at uni, dropping out when the penny dropped for them.

    2. I met Mrs Accumulator at university! Was that worth £50,000? [Thinks really hard], ooh yes, just 😉

  • 42 Juliet Bravo's Secret Lover February 7, 2012, 11:09 pm

    Anyone ‘of a certain age’ who was a schoolboy in the 1980s can add Sir Clive Sinclair (inventor of the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum and the (oops) C5 car) to the list of millionaires who skipped Uni, as well as his arch rival at Acorn (BBC Micro maker), Chris Curry.

    Although perhaps if Sir Clive had gone to Uni he might have thought again about the C5 though knowing students perhaps not.

  • 43 The Investor February 7, 2012, 11:15 pm

    @JBSL – Really? I had no idea. Particularly interesting in the case of Sir Clive, as he has a planet-sized IQ and was chairman of Mensa for years. (You’d have to be in Mensa to think the C5 was a go-er! 😉 )

  • 44 Ben February 8, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Micro men was brilliant, such a good story. Memories of hacking basic on a model b in primary school

  • 45 John@MoneyPrinciple February 9, 2012, 4:46 pm

    I understand the rant and you make some good and amusing points. Think on this, though.

    1) Always study your passions, and I don’t mean the girl/boy next door. If at 18 you don’t have any passions, don’t go to university and in particular don’t use it as a way of putting off working for 3 years or so. The point is to acquire knowledge for yourself not to appear a smart-arse knowledgeable git to others. That is what makes it valuable. I have always been fascinated by maths and physics and studied these at university many years ago. Even though I rarely use much knowledge past A-levels, I think this was time well spent and although I may not have been able to do this under the present fees, I would have resented it for ever.
    2) If you want to make a lot of money out of education, you are misunderstanding university or maybe you should just study law, accounting, medicine or something like that.
    3) I think your target is wrong. It shouldn’t be the kids who are being (ill-)advised to go to university – unless they have a passion as in rule 1) above – it should be the university management where less than half of university employees are academics, senior management thinks it is running a business and therefore pays itself shedloads with no sanction and a government that is complicit with this, imagining that high fees will make us like the US.
    4) Ask yourself why, if a university were allowed to charge its ‘real costs’ they would be asking for upwards of £15k a year for only a handful of hours contact time, packed lecture theatre whereas a school 6th form offers many more hours for 1/3rd of this.
    5) The other target should be generations of politicians, mostly graduated in the free-university times and many gob-stuffed with silver spoons, who have peddled the myth. I start at least with the time when polys, which did an excellent job by and large, were turned into universtities in the late 80s. Then the big expansion with a 50% target which meant that VCs up and down the country were rubbing their hands together dreaming up courses for the masses.
    6) However the current fees structure is IMHO the kiss of death for many universities in the UK. (Scotland may escape but not for long). Wise students will study overseas, particularly in the EU, no EU students will come here and those that do study here will emigrate and be amused by HMRC’s attempts to recover that massive loans.
    7) It is fashionable in the UK to diss knowledge and education but at a time when the innovation required mneeds immense technical skills and knowledge, this is very short sighted. We need education, knowledge, skills and we short-change our young people by a third class modular tiered GCSE system which means that fewer people study science here than pretty nearly everywhere else. We also need the arts and social science – not all things are hard science. We also need entertainment and I don’t only mean X-Factor rubbish. Music, art, literature are some of the things that maye a country worth living in.
    8) Culture crosses many borders. For example the film/TV/games industry is one of the biggest employers of physicists and mathematicians, as you will see the next time you play Warcraft or Call of Duty. Yes in principle you can learn a lot from the internet – I do every day – but there is a lot of value in working and communicating with people at the top of the knowledge tree and no amount of wikipedia or online training can replace that.

    In the end it is up to the young person. If I had my time again I may change slightly the course I studied but I would still move heaven and earth to go to university. I am really sorry that the present tranches of baby boomers have forgotten their privileges and heaped this mess on the new generation but I am sure that youngsters these days will find a way round it. Maybe it may make more entrepreneurs and that will be a positive outcome as long as it generates an economy that can support knowledge and innovation.

    ‘Nuff sed.

  • 46 The Accumulator February 11, 2012, 8:47 am

    Great comment John. If I had to choose between a system that allows the top 5-10% to taste university for free and one that makes room for 50%, if they pay for it, then I’d rather the latter. I’d rather the choice was there for the many and that the cost involved invites serious thought about whether it’s the right choice at all, as opposed to letting students sleep walk into 3 wasted years.

  • 47 The Investor February 11, 2012, 9:43 am

    @The Accumulator / John — Well put. Perhaps my main desire at the end of the day is that people *think*. If they do the sums (not only of outputs like higher salary, but really genuinely believe the 3 years is personally worth the huge cost) then fair enough, from their perspective. But it’s an active choice.

    We’ve still got the problem of super bright kids who might benefit not going to university because of the cost, though, for all that entails for science and the arts. At least according to my theory we should have more entrepreneurs as a result, though! 😉

  • 48 Tom March 9, 2012, 5:13 pm

    It’s a shame that so many employers seem so narrow-minded that they will not even consider the non-graduates among us. I think three years of good work experience counts for much more than a degree more often than not. When I was looking for a part-time job (I’m 18 and in the sixth form) I was rejected time and time again for not having any experience. Surely the best way to learn in most jobs is to immerse yourself in them. You will earn as you learn and gain things like people skills which many people, even after graduating, still won’t have. I intend to start quietly and work my way up. I know countless people who have managed to this and I believe that people still can. You are right, the government’s popularising of university will have detrimental effects. Soon we will have too many graduates and another problem. Young people need to consider other options very carefully before taking the plunge and doing a degree.

  • 49 CN April 1, 2012, 5:53 pm

    You just saved my life.

  • 50 Scott April 20, 2012, 8:03 am

    Good article…

    The sixth form I attended was like a university student production line… it was the only option you would be told about, everything else was a waste of your time. So many people I know went along with it – now have degrees in all sorts of quirky subjects which aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

    Despite getting very good grades, I decided university wasn’t for me. I got a traineeship with a large multi-national company, and after a few years of training, I now earn £40K, and am getting a degree paid for part-time! Whilst some of my mates stack shelves in Tescos with their degrees in media, photography etc. And yes, these people did think I was ‘stupid’ for not going to Uni – I have had the last laugh though.

    The one thing I would say is if you don’t go to university, you need to have a clear plan and some discipline. You need relevant working experience, and maybe try picking up some unique skills (I learnt Mandarin, and that has proved far more useful than any certificate). If you eventually get in with a good employer, they will pay for your degree if they see potential anyway!

  • 51 Heather September 3, 2012, 11:17 pm

    hey i would like to say thank you for helping me realize that i’m not completely stupid for not wanting to go to university despite pressure from teachers (as i do quite well in my subjects and exams not to brag) and despite the fact that everybody i know wants to go. i just don’t feel it’s right for me even though i feel that it could hinder my job prospects in the future by not going.
    i am interested in photography which i think there are other ways to do well in this area without uni and i enjoy art and design. i know it sounds to be all fairy ideas but i enjoy it. i don’t want to be stuck in a mundane job though and i could easily fail in the areas i’m interested in, right? i’m quite confused at the moment (obviously) and i think the problem is that nothing is set in stone because job opportunities and the economy is changing all the time.
    i’m starting year 13 now but i hope everything works out eventually. but once again this article was awesome n thanx

  • 52 Gavin September 4, 2012, 9:18 pm

    Many great points, must have taken a while to write.
    I never went to university even though I was academic and went to a school where going to university was what everyone did. I took a ‘gap year’ that was more of a ‘year out’ between school and starting flight training. To cut a long story short I was colourblind (I didn’t know), so that dream was dashed.
    After setting up one company I’ve now decided to setup another for students (and students at heart) to discuss not going to university and the options available. Plus I’d like to get as many forward thinking companies that want to take on young people straight from school. University doesn’t educate like it did. It is seen as a way to get a better job. But experience trumps all (as students are finding).
    If you’re interested the site is in its early days but it’s http://www.degreenotrequired.co.uk
    Great article The Investor

  • 53 jay September 6, 2012, 8:57 am

    i droped out of uni 1st year, from a good family so i never worried about being in debt i had every option available to me my dad was ready to pay any amount for me to do anything i want. i spent 5 grand and got my real estate license, in my 1st year i made 36 thousand and bought myself a nice mercedes, 2nd year i made 58 grand and only spent 8 thousand the whole year saved 50. im smart because i never left my parents home i dont care about this being independent crap screw it you got an advantage take it. this year iv sold 9 homes and by the end of the year i should net about 112000 dollars woooooo i dont know where else i would make this kind of money im just moving higher and higher im 23 years old! and im on autotrader looking at the bentley beautiful car go ask a university graduate if they can buy a bentley at 23!!

  • 54 Ray September 24, 2012, 6:14 pm

    Never went to Uni and i’m glad.

    I’m 26 years old, I’m a new business development manager and account manager in an IT software reseller. I started off in Telemarketing and moved my way up within 3.5 years. I started on 18k a year with a commission of 8k on top (26k a year as a telemarketer at 23, i had experience in a call centre doing lead generation and appointment setting before that for 2 years). I signed a few big accounts back then and they became permanent accounts that i have been managing ever since, i also now have roles in helping to develop the business model of the company to increase revenue through marketing and sales. I’m on a basic of £45,000 per annum with an OTE of £125,000. I work with some of the biggest firms in the country and in Europe to provide top of the range software solutions.

    Uni would have meant i’d be in debt and due to my lack of work experience in this current economic climate i would find it very hard to get employed, still living with my parents.

    I have 5 telemarketers working for me and none of them are uni graduates because from my experience uni graduates tend to be harder to teach especially if the role doesn’t require you to be a graduate in the first place, so i can bring in people with 2 – 3 years experience at 22 years old and have them earning money in a week. Uni graduates cost me money for 3 – 4 months until they have learned the ropes and learned this isn’t uni but the real world.

    Where’s the incentive to go to uni unless you want to be a doctor or a specialist engineer? even then you wont make as much as me or my manager (well maybe if your a reallllllly good engineer or doctor then yeah lol)

  • 55 kim October 4, 2012, 8:43 pm

    I’ve been tossing up the idea of going to uni as it is that awful time in my life when I should be applying. I thought for the entirety of my life that uni was the only option and that uni was the only way forward, however I’ve been looking into accounting apprenticeships and volunteering abroad and especially after reading this article I realize I don’t need uni!
    Surely I can get a decent job and I won’t even be in a ridiculous amount of debt. I’m not that bothered about money anyway; I just want to do something that I enjoy and will support me financially.
    Really the point I’m trying to make is that I’m so thankful that this article is out there, because having been raised to believe uni was the only option I really needed my head juggled around to realize alternatives are just as good, if not better!

  • 56 Luke November 11, 2012, 10:59 am

    This is quite possibly the stupidest thing i’ve ever read. You are such an idiot. Just.. Wow

  • 57 The Investor November 11, 2012, 11:44 am

    @Luke — Thanks for putting me in my place. Obviously I recant everything in the face of your corruscating analysis. 🙂

  • 58 Ferat January 20, 2013, 5:13 pm

    This article is epic! I am currently in my last year of A- levels, I am average in my academics, tend to switch off with school. Find it boring studying in the library, doing coursework etc. My intentions are to build a big business!( yes that’s right) and laugh at people that graduate who are my age in 3 1/2 years time, when I am in a Bentley when I am 28-29 hopefully!

  • 59 K February 1, 2013, 11:05 pm

    /agree 100%, I’ve spent some years in what’s considered one of the best universities in the world. It was a frugal life, boring and full of conformity.

    I don’t run my business – still I get paid rather well and life’s just so much better. Have to say though, I do one of the ( very few ) jobs where a university qualification helps quite a bit. Yet, from my social circle, those that make the most money *and have the better lifestyle* are those who opted out of academia as soon as possible.

    the Ivory tower is a complete waste of time and human talent IMHO.

  • 60 BoBo February 8, 2013, 7:05 pm

    Awesome Article!

    Wish I had read it 5 years ago.

    Uni is a fake reality where your bills are paid, the beers are cheap and nothing is compulsory everything is optional. It stifles the development of a strong character with values and interests outside of “banter” (I hated those posh types that would say banter at every opportunity, or LAD, “Timothy your such a lad with your top banter!” What was all that about?

    I enjoyed uni, I definitely feel like “I made the most of it” with athletics clubs, societies and going out, but looking back it was a boring farce from start to finish !

    Why do you need to go to university to get pissed twice a week? or join a sports club? or even study? It’s like your paying to get access to stuff that is already available to you.

    But you can’t go back. And it wasn’t exactly hell on earth, it was ups and downs like every other part of my life. I know a lot of people that regret not going but trust me, uni is nothing special and a lot of people would be better off without it.

    Anyway rant over. I loved this article, really well written.

  • 61 idiot February 17, 2013, 9:36 am

    I did my three years and hated it, I spent all that time enduring class after class thinking that it would pay off for me (it didn’t/hasn’t). Now I’m thinking of going back! I don’t even know why but I seem to think that my first piece of paper will be more valuable if I get a second. I’m seriously thinking about dropping out before the semester starts.

  • 62 Toon February 20, 2013, 8:44 pm

    What about us people that never even got the option to? and never will government cuts have now axed the chance of free lessons at college. Try getting above the 12k a year ceiling with just GCSE’s.

    Been looking at volenteer work abroad- could never afford it

  • 63 Toon February 20, 2013, 8:48 pm

    also in addition, i am dam good with computers (self taught) can fix almost anything wrong with them, taught myself to use linux and have become quite proficient at it, yet i send my C.V for Tech roles i know i could easily do all you get is sorry.. no qualifications in I.T absolute joke

    but year cracking article to be fair

    “A degree in social science from somewhere nobody has heard of is going to land you back home on the shopfloor at Debenhams quicker than you can say: “Three years, £50,000 in debt” made me chuckle

  • 64 mucgoo February 22, 2013, 8:10 pm

    You don’t seem to have allowed for the low chance of repayment of student debts for many people. If your never going to earn much above median salary or your going to be a stay at home mum then its basically a government funded doss for three years studying something you hopefully enjoy. Of course most people will overestimate potential earnings and its hard to predict other major decision ten years in advance.

    Rather a lot of survivorship bias in assuming starting a business is easy at any age.

    Personally I’m fortunate enough to be from a “low income” family (thank god net worth isn’t assessed) and non repayable grants will be worth £3.5k more per year than the £9k tuition fees. Another £4k borrowed from the government to cover living expenses and it comes in at a cost of £16k.

    I will however still be taking the full government loan package due to the favourable terms its lent with. That will come out as a £8k per year surplus.

  • 65 Ty February 22, 2013, 8:29 pm

    Great article. I’m in a weird sort of situation myself with the whole thing. I know of the career I want to get into, but unfortunately you need experience in it (obviously). From that, the only way people will actually let you get experience though is if you have a degree… It just seems like a complete catch 22 for me, and is certainly a lot of cash and time to get a job that I believe you don’t even need a degree to do in the first place!

  • 66 R March 12, 2013, 2:20 pm

    I had a gap year – which I thought entirely sensible as I’d had a hectic final year and no idea what I’d wanted to embark upon.

    So I ended up doing humanities in my home city, picking subjects that interested me, without having any idea where it would lead. Or even how the uni system worked. I didn’t care, smoking dope and drinking and gradually adding more debt. Failing sometimes, passing sometimes, being generally indifferent.

    After along time of stuffing around I left and eventually re-enrolled in a yet more useless (for me) degree. Finally, after another bout of wondering and wandering, unbelievably to my former self that swore off university last time, once again I am studying!

    Now I want a precise career that requires a certain qualification and am working hard, taking on more debt, to achieve that goal. Should I have gone to university to begin with? No, probably not. Yet that journey has shown how right you are in questioning the pertinence with which it is offered to us.

  • 67 Emad March 22, 2013, 1:41 pm

    I highly agree that people like you and I don’t need university education. But there are people who need this education and more importantly these people need to create better technologies i.e. Internet for people like us to utilize.

    Great article 🙂

  • 68 Curious-Sarah March 27, 2013, 4:46 pm

    Here’s some inspiration! Read the quote below from this article — Nasty Gal now has $100 million in annual sales!


    “People say: ‘Nasty Gal? What’s that?’ ” Ms. Amoruso, now 28, said in an interview at her new headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. “I tell them, ‘It’s the fastest-growing retailer in the country.’ ”

    Back in 2006, she toyed with the idea of going to photography school, but couldn’t stomach the debt.

    Instead, she quit her job and started an eBay page to sell some of the vintage designer items she found rummaging through Goodwill bins.

  • 69 The Investor March 27, 2013, 8:25 pm

    Thanks @Sarah. I indented the quote to make it easier to read.

    Of course not every university drop out can be a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, or a Nasty Gal. 🙂 But there are plenty of in-betweens for those able to knuckle down and work at it.

    (Remember again, this isn’t a course for the lazy and lumpen).

  • 70 Alex April 15, 2013, 11:16 pm

    This is exactly how I feel! I’m sick of how all sixth forms and colleges try to brainwash us with the idea that you HAVE to go to uni to be successful. It’s bullshit. Especially when you aren’t sure what you want to be in life and are risking spending £35,000 on something you aren’t sure what to do. Do what makes you happy. I’m taking a gap year to Ghana to volunteer whilst deciding what I want to do in life. And no my mum and dad have not paid for my gap year, i’m using the money I earned from my part time job outside of college.

  • 71 Bo May 7, 2013, 3:55 pm

    I’d just like to say thank you so much for posting this. It has helped me work a few things out. I started doing a law/arts double degree last year, ended up dropping law, and decided to pick it back up this year. Hate it. Starting to realise that I don’t want to be at university at all. I have extremely strong interests in graphic design and have discovered that there is a wealth of shorter/cheaper courses that would help me with gaining work. I just want to get out there and start working, start earning money, start gaining experience, start making connections.

    Ever since high school, we were told that it’s best to go to university so we could get a job. Since exploring my other options, I’ve had to change my thinking as this was the only thing I knew: high school -> university -> job. Your article has definitely helped me in seeing things from another perspective. Thanks again!

  • 72 Kiri May 9, 2013, 11:48 am

    I am currently trying to decide whether university is the right path for me and I have to say that having read this article, I am further swayed into believing that a degree is something people have been conditioned to believe they must have.
    I’m currently on a gap year and I have to say I believe that I’m learning much more out in the world, through having to manage money and deal with every day situations on my own, as well as learning to speak and live day to day through a second language.
    I really appreciate what you have said in this article as well as what has been said by the above comments, they are going to play a part in my final decision, whether to study or not.

    Wonderful Article!!

  • 73 Rufus May 13, 2013, 8:42 am

    Hey I am hoping I can get a response from someone here. I’m 18 years old and about to go to university however I have never wanted to go. Every time I raise my concerns about going I am shot down by my friends and family as an “idiot” or “lazy”. People always seemed to be surprised at how low my academic grades are, they usually assume I am an A grade student because I do pay attention in school and I would consider myself knowledgable. I have an offer from (let’s face it) a bad university, I don’t want to go but I also don’t know what I want to do. I have always thought about the points raised in this article, especially the point about maturity which I think is absolutely ridiculous. I recently started part time work at a catering company and was terrified to discover a lot of the people I was working with had DEGREES! One guy was an Oxford graduate! Saying all this though University seems like the only option to me, what else am I supposed to do? I don’t have any big ideas, contacts or passion for a certain industry.

  • 74 Bo May 14, 2013, 6:18 am

    Hey Rufus,

    I’m 18. I started university last year not knowing what I wanted to do either. Halfway through last year I deferred my course for 6 months and worked for a bit, did a bit of traveling. Then I came back to my course this year. About 7 weeks into the semester, I realised university was not for me. Although my parents didn’t really approve of me dropping out of university altogether, I knew that I had to make my own decision, because in the end, I would be the one having to pay back an enormous debt, not them. I pulled out and I felt so relieved. If you’re absolutely sure that university is not the place that you want to be, get out now. Don’t waste your time, don’t worry about what other people think, just leave. It’s your life, you only get to live it once. You have a job so at least you’re earning a bit of money. While you’re working you might discover an interest or passion that you want to learn more about and pursue. If this is the case, there’s plenty of short courses (usually 3 months-1 year) that are offered through colleges, so you could take advantage of that to learn more. Don’t get too stressed about it. If you don’t go to university, it’s not the end of the world. It isn’t for everyone and not everyone goes. There’s a million other options out there. You’re still young anyways, you’ll eventually find what you would like to do 🙂

    Good luck!

  • 75 Catherine May 20, 2013, 9:41 pm

    Brilliant article, agree with the most part of it!
    I’m studying for my a levels at the moment and have realised how lucky I am that my sixth form gives a true scope of what you can do after you leave college- they don’t just drone on about universities. I have, however, decided that university is the best option for me and I really do want to go, and it feels so much better knowing that I am making an informed decision and haven’t just gone along with the flow of higher education.

  • 76 Jon June 5, 2013, 10:12 am

    This article really speaks to me. I’ve been graduated high school for 2 years now, but I’m not sure what I want to do. I applied to uni just because I have nothing else in mind.. but I’m really not sure if that’s even worth doing, people have told me probably not and I’ve seen from others that most jobs you get out of college/university you can get without even going. This helps me but I’m still not sure what to do. I just want to find something I’m interested in.

  • 77 Ruby June 9, 2013, 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much. I’m 22 now and I dropped out of uni when I was 19 because I was just so uninspired. That year was very difficult for me because I found it difficult to find a job at first but when I did I learnt so much and I know I am a better person than I ever was going to be while at uni.

    I have been offered a university place for the course I was originally going to do (which by itself is a risk as I originally dropped out from the same course) but have also been given an interview for a job I know i’m good at and pays very well and I have been trying to weigh the pros and cons.

    This has really helped I am now 90% sure I will take the job.

  • 78 Bobo June 22, 2013, 2:30 pm

    I agree totally with your article. I too have a full university degree, however unlike you, I do have to pay for mine and it most likely will be a debt I am stuck with the rest of my life. And where has the degree got me? I have no job, no prospects just one expensive piece of paper! Employers are constantly increasing the amount of experience they want out of their applicants so that now not only do they want you to have a degree, but also somewhere in there they want you to have tacked on 2 years of work experience as well (at least here in Australia they do). My advice to anyone else who has a passion – volunteer your heart out! Work a normal job to pay the bills and volunteer in the area you are passionate about. Where possible travel and volunteer too. Eventually you will have enough experience to get work. It will get you farther than any degree and I only wish someone had have shared that advice with me earlier. If you want to train, try and find an apprenticeship where you get paid to train – or join the armed forces, where you also get paid to study. University is so expensive now and the format of how it runs is completely out of date and out of touch. If you still want to learn things, check out free online courses like Coursera, Khan Academy, Saylor.org and University of the People or the many free online lectures or instructional videos.

  • 79 Bobo June 22, 2013, 2:44 pm


    It is ok to not know what you want to do at 18. I think it is ridiculous to expect an 18 year old (or really a 16 year old given when you have to start thinking about this) to know what it is they want to pursue for the rest of their lives. Some lucky few know from a young age exactly what they want and for them it is easy but for the rest of us, we may either be uncertain as to where we want to head, or may have too many interests that it is difficult to choose (I am the latter). I think in your situation the best thing to do would be to defer your uni course for a year and take a gap year. That doesn’t mean you have to travel, though if you can, do it – but use it to get involved with some volunteering, internships, short courses or part time work in several different areas, so this way you can start to get a feel for what you are interested in and what you are good at. Don’t feel bad about achieving low marks either, the school system is really only geared to one style of learning and forgets about kids/teenagers who maybe learn in different ways. If you struggled with this in highschool, then I would suggest uni is not the style of learning you should pursue. It may be that you learn better through practical application of ideas, in which case maybe you could think about an apprenticeship? This way you could be learning as you earn. Hope this helps a bit and best of luck with the decision 🙂

  • 80 Marz June 29, 2013, 10:08 am

    Good article, thanks for speaking up against Universities.
    I am one of those poor sods that changed their minds towards the end of my degree, about what I want to do with my career.

    After graduation, I took a 1 year focused/hands-on course in programming and went into IT where I have been very successful in spite of my lack of a suitable degree. It would have been far better for me to take a year off, and decide what I actually wanted to do, while doing some part time job and investigating my first choice of career. I could have saved myself 3 years that were effectively wasted, and earned 3 years of savings (Since I was staying with parents anyway).

    Completely agree that a 16 year old has no idea what they want to do with their life. A friend of mine was adamant from a young age that she would become a doctor, to the point of studying physiology during childhood. She ended up going into politics/social science.

    So basically, my degree put me back several years because I wasn’t earning money during those years and I wasted time where I could have been gaining valuable experience in my chosen career. Of course, in my country, if you didn’t have a degree, you would have almost no chance of getting a decent job.

  • 81 Min July 4, 2013, 6:48 pm

    Hi, I think this article is very well done and interesting. It puts forth a great variety of good reasons and points. But on that note, upon reading this article, now I feel really confused. I don’t live in the UK, I live in Canada, and am in high school. The reason I’m feeling confused is that, while this article is really good, I have and still want to go to university. I love searching up universities and majors, not only for me, but for my friends. Personally, I don’t care much about university, degrees or what comes after, I’m just more excited about learning, especially in social sciences. I don’t have superb connections, but I would say that I am priveleged. Should I still go to university even though I’m only in it for learning? Or should I focus on other things?
    If anyone could reply to this, that would be awesome. Thanks.

  • 82 Borat July 22, 2013, 9:31 am

    I never went to uni mainly because I grew up in the middle of nowhere that had no university and the high school I went to was pathetic, I learned NOTHING in high school.

    I decided to quite my 6 year IT career and move into the city, I left my home, friends and family and arrived here by myself.

    I studied for 3 years and worked part time in retail to support my self. I had to travel 1 hour a day by car go get to university, and finding car parking took 30 minutes some times as well. Parking was a rip off as well.

    I studied accounting, almost 80% of students in my class were from Vietnam or China, so it was hard to make friends. The white students were all teenagers and I guess I was seen as a ‘old man’ to them, so my social life and uni life was non existant.

    I ended up failing two units badly, which brang down my GPA/Average to 58.3%. If your GPA is lower in then 65% then you are stuffed in finding work in Australia, especially in accounting.

    I completed my degree and have been looking for accounting work for 1 year. I was unemployed for 6 months and managed to find a low paying boring admin job. Ironically this job doesn’t even required a high school education and a trained monky can do it.

    The university career counsilors are a joke. Before graduation all they advised me in my 5 minute appointment with them was for me to make my resume a bit pretty with images and to be more confident in my self LOl. I tried emailing them again for help but because I graduated they couldn’t help me anymore LOL

    So I am at 30 years of age, in debt from university with a USELESS degree, cant find work because of average grades or I don’t have experience (funny how entry level/graduate roles want you to have 2 years plus experience) and work In a dead end job, I don’t even have a career and hate coming to work.

    University is only for the top 20-30% of students, and it shows as only the top 20-30% of graduates get graduate roles, the rest work in retail or drive taxis.

    I wish I never spent the remaining years of my 20’s at soul destroying and useless Uni.

  • 83 Shuk August 12, 2013, 10:33 am

    I’m born in Singapore and have been taught/conditioned that education is key to success or finding a decent job that pays you well, in other words, provides security. It REALLY is import an here and well looked up upon which makes i really hard for me to not go uni. Yes, coward me.

    Your article made me tear actually, because it made me realize how badly I want to get out of university and pursue different interests of mine. I just started uni, a first year student and hardly a week into school but I already hate it. I’m pursuing psychology but am wondering if that is what I want years to come from now. I have also been awarded a scholarship and hence, all fees paid for and living allowances given, yet I am uncertain about it. Do I really deserve this?

    I’m really stuck between deciding to continue and pursue a free education with free cahsback or pursue different interests, gain experiences and not care about what my society thinks. Bless me.

  • 84 The Investor August 13, 2013, 10:16 pm

    @Shuk — Thanks for sharing your perspectives. The article above is definitely written from a UK perspective, because it’s partly to do with the funding for degrees and education changing so radically here over the past few years. Your mileage may vary. It sounds like everything is free for you, so perhaps stick at it while making your plans and even first steps on the side? (Market research, learning, starting to generate leads, whatever is relevant to you).

    @All — One thing I really need to stress is I am not saying it’s easier/better to just skip university and get a job or try to start a business. I am saying it is definitely possible, and it definitely can be a superior path to take.

    But it’s a path for people who are prepared to think different, assuming responsibility for their life, and not look to blame anyone but themselves for the outcomes (with perhaps a small nod to Lady Luck).

    I love hearing your stories. You’re all young and with a lifetime of opportunity ahead of you. I’m not *so* much older, but already I envy you.

    Try to enjoy every minute! 🙂 Even some of the tough ones that lead to the good ones later on.

  • 85 Phil August 18, 2013, 10:44 am


    Interesting article, and you raise some good points.

    I think it’s worth pointing out a few things though…

    Firstly, the figure of ‘£50k student debt’ is newspaper propaganda… Student debt is NOT real debt (certainly not like a mortgage, bank loan or credit cards, anyway). It really should be thought of as a form of graduate tax and not as a loan.

    It doesn’t appear on your credit history, you don’t repay a penny until you are earning £21k pa (and that figure will rise over the coming years), even when you do repay, you repay at a fixed 9% of all earnings above the £21k and NOT a %age of the outstanding nominal, if you ever lost your job (or dipped below the 21k) your payments would freeze, it comes out of your pay before you ever see it (like PAYE) and after 30 years any outstanding debt is written off.

    You get a payment holiday from the summer of graduation until the April of the following year (longer, of course, if you aren’t earning enough by then)

    Oh and you’d never get bailiffs come to your door, or have to worry about CCJs or bankruptcy from it, either.

    What ‘student loans / student debt’ really is… A graduate tax amounting to an premium of 9% on top of your income tax, over and above a personal allowance of £21k, for a fixed time period.

    When viewed like that, it actually allows potential students to make a more educated (sorry, bad pun!) decision about their future.

    For the 18 year old who knows what they want to do, and knows that a good job in that area will bring in a better salary after factoring in the additional tax rate (as that’s what it REALLY is) than without the degree… Then yes, Uni is a good choice for them.

    The 18 year old who doesn’t really know what they want to do… Terrible choice. They should take a gap year (or 3 or 4) get into the real world and find out for themselves. If they then decide (aged 25, say) that they really want to be in a career that needs a degree… Then they can become a mature student.

    For the budding entrepreneur… Get out in the real world, and go for it, of course that’s the best option! But I think you overestimate the number of people that have the balls to actually do this… What you have to remember is that most people aren’t as proactive as you or your readership, and don’t prefer to take their future into their own hands. I’d estimate it to be 2 or 3% of the population (at the absolute highest) that would fit into the ‘I’m an entrepreneur and brave enough to handle failure!’ category. Most people would just take the security of paid employment… Even if it means earning £20 – £50k a year in relative security versus the potential to earn millions…

    You have to remember that freelancers like you and entrepreneurs like me are statistically unusual. No better nor worse than anyone else, but we think differently. For the majority of people… Uni is perhaps a better option (depending on their career choice, and determination, obviously)

    I think the subtext of your article is that far too many school leavers automatically accept University as their ‘only option’ and then scrabble around looking for a course without really knowing what they want to do… And that I agree with.

    But please don’t scare off the level-headed types that DO, or the ones sensible enough to wait 5 years, then think about (and only attend if they really feel it’s worth it) with this newspaper-led horror story about student debt…

    Oh as an aside, I take your point that £50k compounded over a working lifetime DOES scale up pretty nicely, mathematically speaking. But it’s totally irrelevant because you don’t get the choice what you spend your tuition fee loan on. To make a fair comparison, you’d have to factor in the time to save up the 50k in the first place… And that depends on circumstance.

    I love your blog, and this is a good, solid article. I hope it encourages more 17 and 18 year olds to at least consider whether Uni is right for them, or to think a little harder about what course they take, or even if they should spend a few years doing something else until they have decided…

    But please don’t be part of the crowd that scares off intelligent, motivated, disciplined and intelligent people from bettering themselves with a media-led scare story…

  • 86 jenny August 22, 2013, 9:21 am

    Absolutely spot on. One other point. If you go to uni at 18, and do any degree because you don’t know what you want from life, you effectively shut and bolt the door for later on when (through life experience) you’ve decided what you want to do, it needs a specific degree, and you chose the wrong one.
    I’m 33 now. I did a degree at 18 in religious studies, because it interested me and my career advice consisted of “you’re intelligent, do a degree in anything and then decide”. Which you may notice as completely useless advice. I did that, got a decent degree (2.1) and after plenty of chasing after graduate schemes, took a secretarial course just so I could get a job to support myself. Which is something I could’ve done straight from school. Now, if I wanted to do something different that required a specific degree I would be stumped- you can only get one student loan.
    My advice to my kids will be to avoid uni and do an apprenticeship. Instead of getting into debt for not learning anything useful, they will earn a little, have employable skills and gain valuable experience of the workplace- whatever they decide to do when they’re a little older.

  • 87 Anonymous August 24, 2013, 4:58 am

    Its nice to see somebody brave to come out like that and speak the truth. This has certainly made me rethink about going to university with my planned business career.

    Thank you

  • 88 Anon August 30, 2013, 1:45 pm

    For me, uni was the best thing I ever did. But I studied in Scotland where there are no ridiculous fees – didn’t stop me taking out a £15k loan over the 5-year term of my course – 6 years on, almost paid it off… can’t imagine a £50k debt (in addition to mortgage, pension etc). I wouldn’t go to uni if it meant that level of debt.

    Anyway, I did a 5-year Masters in engineering (electronics). 6 years on earning ~£50k – not bad. I’ll probably top out at £55-60k unless I go into the more management-related roles. Job’s fun, wear whatever I want to work, listen to music, get to work on some cool projects and I look forward to coming into work. Saying that, engineering doesn’t always pay – even I’d like more dosh! Have been looking at oil & gas – or moving to the States (would earn more like $120k USD but holidays are limited there). I’m doing ok but you’ll find a lot of engineers disgruntled at their remuneration considering the job they do.

    I wouldn’t recommend uni for most, nowadays (unless you’re in Scotland and study something worthwhile). And I mean ‘study’ – I stayed at home and did some hardcore study for 5 years – none of this partying about nonsense. I’d say do an apprenticeship (mates of mine earn ~£30kish currently and get paid overtime – the luxury!) – or (seriously) go join the RAF/Navy/Merchant Navy. See the world, get paid decent money, learn some skills – they’ll pay for food, accommodation, driving license. Almost tempted to do it myself but it’d be a step down in salary.

    Too many Labour-loving idealistic hippies going to uni to study poncy subjects.

  • 89 Ann October 31, 2013, 7:54 am

    Wow, the same happened to me. I went to university because at the time I had no idea what to do (my parents strongly believed in education) and in my country state college was for free. I went to class when I was only needing a signature, I studied always 1 week before exams just to cover enough material so I could pass…I did no like almost all subjects or teachers….But, there is big but there. I did not know why was that, why I did not like it. Years passed since then and I have realized that i did not need college at all…I learned how to work while working and I did no use anything of what I learned in college… I studied engineering and IT btw… I just felt afterwords that I wasted a lot of time there…and my gut feelings were right -that is why I did not like it-part of me knew…. I usually say now that college is for people who want average life… but if you feel you want more from life do not waste time there.

  • 90 kate November 3, 2013, 4:39 pm

    Agree totally. I too got a free uni education, then I taught degree students later in my career. As a lecturer, I saw how unis had changed from quality education facilities into money making schemes, and the losers were the students, both the home bred kids and the rich ones from the far east who couldn’t read or speak English, but were paying the staff wages. Now fees are sky high, where’s the logic? I think kids should be taught wider life skills from primary school age such as thinking outside the box and thinking independently. Team skills are vital yes, but so are self starting, creative problem solving ways of looking at coping with various pit fall challenges their lives will throw their way. My niece just got a 2:1 degree, paid for by the company she’s worked at since leaving school at 17, she lived at home so no debt and is close to buying her first home with her man, and she’s only 24. Her sister’s doing a nursing degree while living at home and working at the local hospital as a receptionist. She’s absorbing the world she’s training for while earning money for it and getting her further education. Many 40-50 year olds still think university is the great aspirational career solving goal. It was once, but it’s broken now. Sorry bit of a rant, but so good to find your article.

  • 91 James November 16, 2013, 10:28 pm

    Excellent article. I’m 35 and im going back to uni to study diagnostic radiology next year. All free and a £500m bursary, can you believe it! I have come to this in the most unconventional way and I’m the better for it. I have travelled the world, lived abroad, run my own gardening businesses, worked as a support worker for disabled kids and most recently trained as a sports therapist and worked with the public and some top athletes. I’m fascinated with people and the human body and want to do a job where I can make a differenc so now I feel that a degree is right for me. BUT, I have countless amounts of friends who did soft and ultimately useless degrees that have led to nothing! ONLY DO A DEGREE IF IT’S COMPLETELY ESSENTIAL.

  • 92 Sophie January 8, 2014, 2:56 pm

    In that three years you “wasted” at university didn’t you gain a better sense of who you are and what you want out of life?
    Even if I don’t use my degree later in life, which I’m pretty sure I will because I want to be a writer or a teacher, the experiences and skills I have picked up from university are still valuable. For me, paying £9,000 per year is enough to make me turn up to my course lectures, and even though it might not always be the most exciting content, my views, confidence and intellect have all strengthened. Although I do agree that you raise some good points, and believe that people should only go to university if they desire deeper knowledge in their subject, it is a bit pompous and narrow-minded for you to argue that the only people who should go to university are spoilt rich kids or people who can make money out of it. University is about so much more than debt and making money. It is about freedom, expression, the development of innovation and dissemination of new ideas.

  • 93 guest January 15, 2014, 6:18 pm

    @Sophie, the message of the writer is much much deeper than what you understood (at least what I see from what you wrote)…. Everybody interprets everything in light of his, her own beliefs. If you believe in university -go. But you can be a successes without going to either – if that is what you believe into. It is all about beliefs…. the message is deep….

  • 94 theBigM January 26, 2014, 3:13 pm

    Interesting and well-presented article. University is definitely a good idea for some, but the author is right to point out that with the marketisation of the education sector, the trend of schools to push as many people as possible into higher education, and the large sums of money involved in attending, young people should definitely think very carefully about their choices and take a realistic view of where their choices are going to lead them.
    I would take all this “university gives you space to develop, widens your perspectives” argument with a pinch of salt. There are plenty of ways you can broaden your horizons, without paying 9 grand a year for the priviledge of doing so. Go travelling, volunteer, work different jobs, etc. The whole university social life thing is overblown too, my friends who didn’t go to university didn’t stay at home every night and live like monks.
    I would advise anyone who isn’t sure about going to university to work/travel a bit and try and work out what they want to do with their lives. You are much better going off to University in your twenties with an idea of what you want to do and working hard towards that rather than drifting onto a degree at 18. You can always go back and do a degree if you need to, but there are plenty of other ways into many jobs/professions!

  • 95 Emma April 2, 2014, 6:49 am

    Hi everyone, can I just say I felt like this majorly last year…I was studying Environmental Science (just came out of year 12) and I thought it was the BIGGEST waste of time hated the degree, uni and ontop I had no idea what to do…Later through the year I discovered I still had kept my passion for science and after a cervical cancer case study I didn’t look back, I enrolled in Medical and Health Science and was accepted straight away. I am now in week 5 of my new degree and it is honestly the most amazing and best experience in my life so far…I love studying and learning the content and am always amazed by the cadavers we are able to hold and observe in pracs…the knowledge is something I would NEVER trade for travel or full time job. I appreciate everything I am learning so much and I am so excited to think one day I will be able to apply all of this knowledge to become a doctor and help patients etc. I do agree uni isn’t for everyone, but if you are at uni or you’re unsure weather to go…its probably because you just don’t know what career path to take or your studying at uni in the wrong degree entirely…like I was!
    Yes uni fees are expensive but so is everything these days, the knowledge that you learn though is invaluable and personally I wouldn’t even care what it costs, I am having the time of my life and am growing so much as person through this experience…I can wait to travel though in a couple of years during a uni break…I have been overseas many many times with my family and embracing different cultures etc is also an amazing experience…the way I see it, we are so lucky to have these opportunities, even though yes lots of people can go to uni nowadays, it’s a luxury that I wish everyone had access too because the brain is an amazing thing and we don’t know who the next person will be to make a break through in science or any other faculty for that matter 🙂

    So please, if your considering uni, forget the whole uni thing and just focus on what are YOUR passions, morals, interests etc. If you love to travel then apply that to your life goals…e.g. you love to travel, look at pathways in uni and careers that will allow you to travel. If you love fashion, study a degree of commerce and apply for an internship with a leading online fashion company and get sent overseas to do media work for them…honestly the pathways are endless, you just need to search them.

    I have noticed by the way most of these posts are from England, I’m from Australia 🙂 I go to the University of Wollongong, it is great there! You might want to study abroad and come to Wollongong for some travel 🙂

  • 96 Ryan April 7, 2014, 5:17 pm

    During high school in Australia I decided I wanted to become a programmer and also travel after school. When it came time for me to decide whether to go to uni I decided to move to UK and start working instead. I got a basic IT support job and 6 months later I became a programmer. I’m nineteen now with a year of commercial experience under my belt. I’m earning more now than my friends will be at the end of their degrees, doing what I love and am not saddled with student debt. I would advise any ambitious and talented school leavers going into degree optional industries to give uni a miss. Remember you can always go to uni later if things don’t work out.

  • 97 Josh April 8, 2014, 12:43 pm


    Great article but I need some advice:

    I’m from the UK and I live in Brighton, but currently studying Audio and Music Technology (BSc) at UWE, Bristol. I’m just about to finish my first year and I’m thinking about dropping out, mainly because I find the teaching standards very low, and I’m only really enjoying university for the social side which is a terrible excuse to stay when I’m spending £9,000 a year, plus £4,500 a year for accommodation.

    I had a gap year before university and I studying Live Sound Engineering at college which was fantastic, and taught by professionals who actually knew what they were talking about – they never mentioned university, only “experience” and would organise shows for us to set up all the time. During this gap year, I worked a part-time job and worked on my own music with my band.. it was one of the best years of my life because I felt like I had a steady income, and I was getting more and more experience in the music industry which was good for me to learn as I wanted to make it big with my band (which sounds like a day dream, but it is one of my main passions).

    Anyway, university has made me go back in the wrong direction.. and the pressure to stay is VERY HIGH, not just from society, and the media.. but from the PEOPLE HERE who are also telling me to stay: “Josh you’ve gone through a year, might as well finish it now! A degree is better than no degree!”.. I just can’t make up my mind.

    I miss all my boys at home too, and they’re ALL DOING THEIR MUSIC RIGHT NOW.. some are even getting their labels very successful and I feel like I want to get my band back in action to work alongside these labels and such.

    I don’t care about working part-time for a while, just as long as I make enough money to live and so I can concentrate on my music.

    I need some advice: Should I leave and pursue what makes me happy?

    Cheers! **Sorry for the massive wall of text**

  • 98 kenny April 16, 2014, 1:22 pm

    http://britishproblems.co.uk/students-now-leaving-university-55000-debt-really-worth-going/ – £55,000 in Debt after University, Is It Really Worth Going?

  • 99 tom April 18, 2014, 12:45 pm

    People should consider going to university abroad. It’s for free in Germany, for instance, and they have some excellent programmes in engineering and the sciences. Also in the humanities. France might also worth a look, even though I don’t know about their fees.

  • 100 Ivan Opinion April 19, 2014, 1:27 pm

    Interesting article in the 5 April 2014 Economist, about academic research that confirms uni is not worth it for many people. It is based on US unis, but i suspect it holds good in the UK too. The article is titled Is college worth it?

    Incidentally, i found it amusing that the advert that google has chosen to display with this article is for the Open University!

  • 101 Wesley April 20, 2014, 9:29 pm

    I’m so worried about going to uni. I’m not really that smart by ‘grades’ standards and getting sick of studying. I feel like i’ve been pushed into applying by my college and yeah I got offers from all my chosen universities but I think that was due to the work experience I mentioned in my personal statement. I dropped out in my first year of 6th form, volunteered for the rest of that year, then went back to study for my a levels. Now I’m seriously considering getting a job. I don’t even like drinking and that’s just what students do. I’m just scared about having friends outside of education. I don’t know how to meet people any other way than school!

  • 102 old_eyes April 22, 2014, 2:17 pm

    I understand the points that you are making, but I think you are being extreme to provoke a reaction.

    The key question for anyone is do I ‘want’ to go to university. It is not a great experience for everyone. Personally I spent a year working in IT before I went to university and that experience convinced me that I didn’t want to work just yet I wanted to go to university and study chemistry – NOW!

    Because I went with that passion, I had a great time, learned a great deal, and built the foundation of my career; which was not exclusively in chemistry but all over manufacturing industry.

    Yes I had free tuition and a small grant, but I was already much poorer than I had been in IT. That did not matter because it was something I wanted to do. Had it been fees and loans and the time, I would still have gone because I wanted to. I would have assumed with the arrogance of youth that it would sort itself out at some point.

    Would I have got to the same place without university? Possibly. I can’t do the counterfactual, but I suspect that without the people I met and their influence I would not have travelled as far as quickly. Would Ted Talks and MOOCs got me there? Again, could be but I doubt it. Certainly in the sciences, framework is everything. You need a way of thinking about the workld and you need to share it with people intensely. I love Ted Talks and all the online resources you can get, but I still go on one day and weekend courses for pleasure because the learning experience is so much more intense. Not everyone is self-starting enough and happy enough with their own company to manage without structure and other people.

    So for me it worked and I have absolutely no regrets. It was a life transforming period.

    There is far too much worrying about payback on the time invested in purely financial terms. I would agree with you, don’t go to university to get some probably illusiory graduate premium. Go because you want to and are prepared to take the financial consequences. I think university education should be free or low cost, but we have the system we have. What I said to my own sons when the time came was do not think about what will get you a job, as the article says there are many many routes to enough money to feel comfortable, think about what you will enjoy. Most of the skills taught at university transfer very well from one domain to another, so shifting focus after you graduate is not necessarily a problem.

    Finally, my main role now is finding and supporting innovative ideas. They come from all over the place, and you can get stupid doomed ideas from leading academics and great ideas from those with no formal training, but at least in the area of technological innovation there are far more high quality ideas from businesses with individuals at a senior level with strong formal education than those without. You will often find bright entrepreneurial technologists teamed up with more experienced business brains (who may or may not have a univsiveristy education), but without those smart guys and girls who paid their dues in formal education those ideas would not exist or would be hard to reduce to commercial practice.

  • 103 Muna July 19, 2014, 6:46 pm

    This is a very close minded article and it really is a bad influence on people who do want to go to University. Yes they may spend a lot of money on something useless but you forgot a special word – ‘passion’. It can be someone’s passion to study a subject they like, and more in depth. Plus, even if it’s a useless degree they want to do, they would enjoy the three years of that and might even get a job related to what they have studied.

  • 104 Timothy Smith August 12, 2014, 12:50 pm

    Hats off to the author – for what amounts to Herecy against the religeon of University. The last two commentors are clearly still trying to justify their debts… old_eyes seems to waffle on the fence about this, while muna is either a university student themselves, or someone thoughrally sold on the idea of ‘broadening your horizons’ ( on your parents money ).

    University would have made me into some kind of unbalanced person, and every time I sit in on one of my friend’s lectures, it seems exasperating how they could sit through that mind numbing garbage, let alone pay for it. If I wanted to hear someone’s opinion about sociology, then I’d read their book…

    However, at least here ( Canada ), UNiversity is openly steered away from education towards a leftist cult indoctrination… and it is a business – students get what they pay for, and what they ask for, which is easy degrees which require little effort to get, based on the idea that 10 years ago, the piece of paper got you in the door in front of those without it… now since everyone has a degree in Sociology or Outdoor Recreational Aboriginal Studies, with a minor in basket weaving and speaking Thai, these ‘perks’ are no longer meaningful enough to stand on their own…

    Also, most of my friends who went off to university seem to have problems with conversation, basic ‘classical logic’, debating, sharing and respecting the ideas and opinions of others ( even when they’re different from their own ) and most seem to struggle with basic literacy, and hand writing… they truly get what they asked for, an easy 6 year long party which produces a piece of paper…

    Meanwhile, I have worked in construction, and as a mechanic, and in forestry, and I don’t know a single University graduate ( except my Uncle who’s a lawyer with his own firm of 6 people ) who makes even half of what I do!

  • 105 Liz October 3, 2014, 5:28 pm

    As a youngster, scored high in the North American pre-university tests without finishing the exam, then went on to try three different colleges/universities dropping out of each before I finally twigged that was not the path for me, later finding that Robert Graves, poet and scholar, had said “formal education is death to poets”. Disappointed my parents, yes, though I did try to please them, but do not regret the path that led me to my son. The gifts gained along the way were perhaps always waiting, and for each of us, but they have also come with sorrow, personal and cosmic, and as each wave of grief washes through me, just trusting that whatever I’m doing is helping in the long term and is not an own goal, though it might be both if we’re actually in a binary universe! Does anyone really ‘know’ anything? 🙂

  • 106 fatpipsqueak December 20, 2014, 9:16 pm

    This is good. I didn’t have to choose whether to go to uni or not, I just couldn’t go. Partly the money problem, partly because I was dying of anorexia and partly because I was sick of education and had no idea what I wanted to do. I am now essentially a roleless member of society, but I am alive and less in need of a psychiatrist than most people I know. I share a house with the grim remains of my broken up family and keep on dreamin’. Earlier this year I tried to get a job. I failed. After dissecting my CV and removing approximately 384 “you’re application was unnsuccesful” e-mails from my inbox, I began to wonder if I was destined to exist at all. An eventful year of anorexia recovery and an accident that took me to hospital and left me unable to walk for two weeks took the wind out of my sails and I gave up on everything. And then I began to write. I began to draw and paint again, the first creativity properly for 4 years. And now this writing is rapidly turning into a book, into poems, into songs. It occured to me I could learn to sing and do something I have always wanted to do, being a singer songwriter. I have contributed art to organizations because I had time to do so. I sold stuff on eBay. I read a lot of books about the meaning of life. I feel like I have more opportunities than ever, even while I am earning no money and my whole life is ‘in the pipeline’. But I think investing TIME as opposed to money is the only thing to do. Time to experience life, understand yourself and figure out what you REALLY want to do first. And to realize you’re not limited to one career, that your life’s work doesn’t have to be what everyone else considers a ‘job’ and that going through the motions is not always the best thing. I am so glad I did not have the choice to go to uni, I am glad to be living in fresh air, with hopes and dreams and endless potential in front of me rather than a shadow of debt behind me. Anorexia made me lose everything, and nearly my life, but some kind of fighting spirit pulled through and I’m here, excited about my future rather than bored or fearful or trapped by it. Long live no university!

  • 107 The Investor December 21, 2014, 12:38 am

    @fatpipsqueak — Thanks for sharing your story. Good luck with your creative endeavours. And enjoy!

  • 108 Patrick McSandandoodle January 5, 2015, 12:04 am

    If you never went to University, you wouldn’t have written this article.
    If you went to university, you wouldn’t be interested in this article.
    If you want to go to university, you wouldn’t want to read this article.
    If you are unsure about going to university, read the first statement.

  • 109 Jamie November 23, 2015, 10:17 pm

    I agree with the vast majority of your post here but will address two areas where I have disagreements first.

    YOU TYPED: “Smart and tenacious people will waste three years when they could have been learning useful stuff in the real world (such as making contacts, and learning how to answer a phone in an office and be nice to workmates).”

    This and another sentence where I believe you referred to networking imply the endorsement of cronyism/nepotism. This to me is despicable as it is antithetical to a meritocratic system. You may claim that such an attitude permeates wider society (and is therefore permissible) but even if that is true, the moment you endorse it as a legitimate means of self-betterment, you become part of that problem.

    To return to your quote, I didn’t need to attend work in order to know how to be polite on the phone or nice to colleagues… these things generally come naturally and don’t need to be feigned by decent people.

    The only other area where I have a slight disagreement is the following; YOU TYPED: “Okay, certain professions require teaching: I don’t want to have my heart operated on by someone who bluffed through exams using Wikipedia.”

    Here I feel you fall in to the same trap you’re arguing against, which is the tendency of people to recognise that some form of rigorous training regime must be in place and then automatically assume that university “education” is the only means via which such training may be acquired, due to its associated cultural prestige etc.

    As you note and in keeping with my own experience, virtually all information that is temporarily memorised at university (to pass exams) is irrelevant to all future endeavours. It is additionally noteworthy that medical degrees tend to incorporate significant apprenticeship elements in to their tuition, as if it is an open secret that such an approach is essential to remediate the failure that is typical uni education (lectures/practicals).

    I would go further than what you seem to be arguing and question the tertiary education system as a whole, specifically in terms of why we squander such vast resources on an institution, the efficacy of which seems totally unevidenced. People should always be free to engage in futile pursuits but the rest of society can not rationally or ethically mandate that people participate in this futility in order to be allowed access to certain careers.

    In my case, I obtained a biochemistry degree from one of the top ranked universities in the world, went to work in an NHS biochemistry department, then discovered that in order to advance my career beyond the lowest pay bands, I’d have to return to university for a further free years to do “top-up” biomedical science modules. All at my own expense of course, with no study leave now available in the budget-cut NHS and naturally, tuition fees had tripled since my first degree.

    I’ve now finished wasting those 3 years and >£10,000 and am now permitted to apply for higher pay band jobs, though there are virtually none available, again in large part due to a budget-cut NHS. Meanwhile virtually every job I do at my current level used to be done by those on the pay bands I’m aiming for.

    Anyhow, the table at the following URL makes many of the same points you do and further ones, demonstrating the monumental superiority of apprenticeship-based training to university “education”.

    There unfortunately seem to be very few studies on pedagogy/tertiary education that don’t start with the assumption that university is a useful or the best approach to edification. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the authors of studies are almost invariably professors and those in the employ of universities. The efficacy of university is simply not questioned by most.

    A nationally representative U.S. study of >2300 students at 24 different universities found te following. The minuscule gains by the other 55% could easily be attributable to the basal development of young minds rather than university intervention.
    Roksa & Arum, 2011, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(2), 35-38:
    “How many students show no statistically significant gains in learning over the final two years of college? Answer: 45 percent. A high proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills”.

    Pascarella et al., 2011, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(3), 20-24:
    “Our results with a different sample of institutions, a different sample of students, and a different standardized measure of critical thinking closely parallel those of Arum and Roksa. We conclude that the findings of Arum and Roksa are not the artifact of an anomalous sample or instrument and need to be taken seriously.”

    Anyhow, overall I just wanted to add further support to your essay and I truly wish wider society would wake up and stop enforcing the myth of university education’s efficacy.

  • 110 The Investor November 24, 2015, 1:55 am

    @Jamie — Thanks for your comments. You quote my comments on networking/answering the phone, and add:

    To return to your quote, I didn’t need to attend work in order to know how to be polite on the phone or nice to colleagues… these things generally come naturally and don’t need to be feigned by decent people.

    I think you might be surprised. Obviously I don’t know your background/upbringing, but there are swathes of people who don’t know how to answer a phone, how to treat somebody at the door to the office when they happen to be the person who opens it, what to say to the customer they bump into in the kitchen, or how to talk to someone five years older than them when they’re say 20 themselves. I’ve seen it again and again.

    I’ve worked in offices (this is 20 years ago now) where there was a group ring on the office phone (this was in media, this used to be normal) and after answering it five times the MD had to quietly suggest to the new 18 year old trainee hack that perhaps he could try answering the phone next time. It didn’t even occur to him. This sort of thing happens over and over, and a lot of it is brushed up a bit by some kind of life experience, such as University.

    As for networking, I am 100% convinced it’s important and don’t agree with your definition of it as nepotism/cronyism. But happy for you to feel differently. 🙂

    It’s late! But will check out your links properly later this week.

  • 111 Jamie November 24, 2015, 7:50 pm

    @The Investor
    Thanks for the reply.

    Fair enough, sorry if I was overly harsh in my initial comment. I’m not sure I entirely agree with your example however, simply in that it is reasonable for an inexperienced new employee to refrain from answering the phone in deference to those who know how to deal with the typical queries. Perhaps if he had all the training necessary to do so then your point is valid.

    Regarding networking, too often it does seem given to cronyism. There are likely some forms that are legitimate but too often it seems antagonistic to a meritocratic approach in my experience.

    Anyhow, I look forward to hearing any feedback you may have on my links, particularly the first one.

    Best wishes,


  • 112 Wavey Davey March 1, 2016, 3:22 am

    I went to University. For five years I attended LSE, eventually graduating with a degree in Economics, having done a placement year in a bank and failed a year. After graduation the last thing I wanted to do was work an office job. So I moved to Asia, initially teaching in a rubbish university but after two years I was hired by a top international school. I am 26, have 50,000 pounds in savings in investments, make about 45,000 pounds PA after tax and am on holiday for two months a year. My day to day work is interesting and stimulating. I get almost all my quota of social interaction in the classroom so after work I go home and spent the evening studying maths and investments. At weekends I work for a tutoring company, making 33 pounds an hour. Without my degree from a top university and the excellent and broad education I received there I would not be in the position I am today. But I am never going to pay back my student loans and there is nothing the SLC can do to get the money back from me.

  • 113 Delta Hedge May 18, 2024, 11:13 pm

    It’s a powerfully argued piece that draws you in with it @TI.

    Thirty years on now, I look back at the 3 years of my undergrad degree as the unhappiness of my life. Got a perfectly decent first degree from a good uni, but being an idiot student surrounded by other idiot students with no earnings wasn’t my idea of fun or fulfilment then, and nothing that’s happened since has changed that perspective.

    Whilst I personally needed to get my post grad professional degrees for my work; I think it’s insanity squared for the UK to try to put 30%-50% of 18 to 21 year olds through higher education.

    We’ve arrived at the natural end point of ‘elite overproduction’.

    Fully commoditiesable, almost completely devalued and practically useless higher education, led squarely by the needs of universities as commercial operators, and not those of students nor society. At least it keeps down the official unemployment stats though 😉

    Unless you’re actually doing STEM/ medicine/ law/ accounting/ economics at Oxbridge (and perhaps at a couple of other top flight institutions), and then getting a clear 1st (so maybe ~0.1% of each age cohort in the UK, at most); then I’d seriously question whether the cost of a degree now outweighs the actual value received – both at the individual and at the wider societal level.

    Take the £50,000-£100,000 in debt per student and invest that instead for them in global equities until their State Pension Age.

    At the Dimson and Marsh 5% p.a. real rate of return on equities since 1900, and using a hopefully realistic 3% p.a. perpetually sustainable withdrawal rate, at say an SPA of 68, that then means that, come their retirement, each student could, from their £600k+ investment pot, withdraw £18k p.a.

    Add the state pension to that and that’s £29k p.a. That’s almost certainly going to be a better deal for most of thrm than spending the £50k-£100k on a degree.

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