With the numbers attending university falling, Claire Hailwood looks at how you might help your teen do their thinking on whether time at uni or college is really for them


Right from the outset I need to acknowledge my privilege. I had a decent state education which gave me the opportunity to go to university in a peer group where that was a common next step post A-level. I had grown up in a family where both my parents had enjoyed a university education and funding was such that it wasn’t a barrier to my choice of whether to attend or not.

I studied English and Drama, a choice I made because they were subjects, I enjoyed and was reasonably goood at (plus nothing else really appealed). I started university with no idea what I wanted to do after gaining a degree. (For more on studying English, go here)  

I was an arts student and as such enjoyed, in my second year, nine hours of contact time with a lecturer and an additional 20 hours reading or guided study. In contrast, my now husband was a science student and the minimum number of contact hours he had whilst at university was 20. Cue hours of debate over who worked harder…Only on a handful of occasions were lectures cancelled.

In terms of future career, my BA Hons in English and Drama prepared me for everything and nothing simultaneously. Everything in the sense that it was a valued qualification, where I’d gained knowledge and skills, but nothing in the sense that there were no direct next steps obvious to me beyond teaching (which I knew wasn’t for me).

Of course, university gave me much more than just a deeper education. It was a great way to leave home gradually, explore and experience independence and more. However, as I entered my third year, I became envious of friends studying physiotherapy who had been training to do a specific job who were able to move much more easily (it seemed to me) in to a job (with a decent salary even with additional training).

And the costs today are eye watering.

An average student starting university this year is expected to graduate with a student loan debt of £45,800. Since 2000 student loan debt has risen by 1578% in England alone.

Yet research still suggests that on average, working age graduates continue to have higher employment rates than non-graduates and earn around £10,000 extra.

Our nephew has recently completed a three-year BSc in a course which promised as much practical laboratory time as it did lectures. It wasn’t until the first term of his third year that he saw the inside of a laboratory. Some of this was pandemic related, but much of it was due to strikes and wider staff shortages. Many have had regularly cancelled lessons and tutorials or whole modules moved online or to self-guided learning.

Many students are therefore questioning what the point of university attendance is and whether their thousands of pounds of tuition fees represent value for money?

Ipsos Mori polling suggests a falling demand for university amongst school leavers with only 32% saying they were ‘very likely’ to go. The percentage of school leavers going to university fell for the first time this year whilst the number doing apprenticeships has increased.

Advising young people

So is university ‘worth it’? What should we be saying to the young people in our world about whether it’s something to pursue or not?

I have deep sympathy with young people today as they wrestle with these decisions, especially those who are academically smart for whom university would open up a world of opportunity and equip them for careers they’d love to pursue. Where costs and systemic barriers prevent such young people pursuing university as an option it’s unjust and I’d love to see change.

Equally, for those young people who are practically smart, brilliant engineers and tradespeople, who learn differently and for whom the investment into apprenticeships has opened up a world of opportunity and been part of removing barriers that prevented advancement, I celebrate the shift that we’re seeing.

As a Mum of four currently, with the privilege of previously fostering teenagers, each of whom created with their own brilliance and only some of them likely to ‘succeed’ at a university education, I’m delighted at a broadening of options and the accompanying validation that academic success is not the only measure worth marking.

The more our education system, which includes but is not limited simply to academic schooling, celebrates and invests in diversity the better. I want to see a world where whatever gifting is in any young person, anywhere, has a route open to them to see that potential released.

So is university worth it?

If it’s a stepping stone to something that someone longs to do, that enables them to learn and develop and sets them up for success, then I’m cheering loudly. (And remember that for many involvement in a CU or local church can ensure solid foundations are built for their life in the future .)

And if it doesn’t or it’s just a filler, then I’m cheering equally as loudly as they figure out what other options there might be to release their brilliance.