If the *shudder* unthinkable happens and you find yourself holding a family meeting with much hand wringing and chest beating it can mean only one thing – your child has confessed to not wanting to go to university. ‘How could this happen?’, you ask yourself, ‘we have books, they eat brie etc etc etc.’ Well allow me to be the first to reassure you… it is not the end of the world. If you have children of university age you will likely have grown up in an era where university was seen as the de facto magic bullet, a panacea that stood bestride academia and career as a golden colossus. Of course you did, degrees still had plenty of cache as they weren’t ubiquitous and more than that they were free. The world has moved on, unfortunately most schools haven’t and still see the excessive drum beating for university as responsible and appropriate – I would suggest somewhat cynically, as it is advice predicated on their desired position in league tables rather than a genuine belief that uni is for everyone.
Here it is, the question I get asked perhaps more than any other – what do I do if my child doesn’t want to go to university? Some stats and figures that might help salve your wounds – in the UK around 76% of students receive either a 2:1 or 1st class degree. Now as universities self assess, these figures need to be looked at somewhat objectively, this kind of gross grade inflation has gone largely unchecked since fees were introduced. It stands to reason that when you start charging for a service expectations rise in accordance, if your child is about to be lumbered with enormous debt before embarking on their career with an usurious interest rate, you too would demand the top grades to justify said debt. What it has meant though is that employers are increasingly unsure what to make of those grades and how much of a barometer of quality it is, so much so that even big name firms in accountancy, publishing and elsewhere have dropped the degree requirement entirely.
The drop out rate for university now runs to between 6-7% for a wide range of reasons but a common complaint is that they feel they’ve been pushed into something that they were uncertain about and now they’ll be stuck with a debt for both rent and fees for something that will not benefit them in any way.
Please don’t take from this that I am in anyway anti-university, quite the opposite, I’m an enormous fan of not just the institution but also the ambition and goals of the process of studying for a degree, I just don’t subscribe to the idea that it is right for everyone, nor do I believe it’s necessarily the right or best route to access any number of careers. If I can make the assumption that as the hand wringing parent you will have perhaps one or more of the following three reasons in mind as to why you think it’s important that your child get a degree, but let’s look at them and see if they hold up.
1/ Prestige – As explored above there has been something of a devaluation of the degree because of grade inflation and genuine bafflement on behalf of employers. A degree from certain institutions that enjoy a poorer reputation and standing in the league tables will cost you as much but be much less compelling an argument for an employer – not all degrees are created equal.
2/ Access to career – There is increasing evidence that the myriad other routes into work are cheaper, quicker and have a better guarantee of success. Apprenticeships, previously a dirty word have gained real ground in the last few years and are no longer limited to particular industries with most large businesses adopting some form of them, equally the newly introduced degree apprenticeships offer a student the chance to ‘earn whilst they learn’ with on the job training alongside academic study where they will bed in with a prospective employer giving them a real leg up in terms of securing a job afterwards. Apprenticeships have an 80% retention figure for students staying on in a paid position after their training has ended.
3/ Not fulfilling their potential – Your dreams may not necessarily be what they’ve dreamt for themselves – that’s not to say you’re wrong, far from it, but sometimes it takes longer for students to identify what they really want. Not applying to university straight away doesn’t preclude their opportunity to go back to it at a later point. Bear in mind most of our children are being asked at the age of 16/17 to make decisions that will impact an enormous portion of their early working lives and that’s almost an unfathomable responsibility. If they take a gap year and fill it with interesting and useful experiences that help them to clarify who they are and what they want than that may be considerably better than rushing to judgement on a course, regretting it and dropping out. Equally working for a year will give them perhaps a greater appreciation of where and what they want to do away from the hot house that is school or college.
With a wealth of other routes into many careers offering the advantage of enhanced career prospects, no debt and crucially gaining actual experience that can be used on a CV there are lots of reasons to not panic should you find yourself having difficult conversations with your teen.
So to answer the question at the top of the page, ‘what to do?’ the answer is simple – listen to their reasoning, try and understand what their objectives are and do your best to guide them through this next year without judgement, they may end up going anyway, they may not – either way as long as they plan their route and don’t drift aimlessly there is plenty of opportunity out there for the focused and ambitious, even without a cap and gown.