University is by far the most popular next step for school and college leavers, and with so much attention focused on higher education, it can feel like it’s the only route open to you.
But with more apprenticeships and school leaver programmes available than ever before, this simply isn’t true. This makes "is university for me?" a vital question for any soon-to-be school leaver – and one that's worthy of serious thought.
'Is university for me? It could be the most important question of your life so far'
Why go to university?
If you’ve always assumed that you’d do your GCSEs, get your A-levels or highers, then go on to university, ask yourself this: is university for me?
If your answer is "that’s what everybody does", "because all my friends are going" or "it looks like fun", you need to go back to the drawing board.
Good reason #1: To get qualifications for your career
On the other hand, if it’s because you need a degree to follow the career path you want to pursue, you’re on the right track. Jobs such as teachers, lawyers and doctors generally require you to have a degree, so university is the logical choice for you.
If you haven’t already, your next step should be to investigate what kind of degree you need to enter that profession – you can find out more by looking at our career zones.
University can also lead to higher-paid jobs. It’s difficult to put a figure on it and there are lots of confusing numbers out there. What it usually boils down to is the difference between "professional" and "non-professional" jobs, where professional jobs usually require a degree. On average, professionals started on £7,000 more, compared with non-professionals in the same area of work.
Good reason #2: To pursue your interests through further study
Some people go on to university because they're passionate about a certain subject and want to know everything there is to know about it. A love of learning is one of the best reasons to go to university. If this sounds like you, the answer to the question "is university for me?" is yes - you're going to love it!
But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for your career as well.
Think about what jobs your chosen subject can lead to, and what you want to do with your life when you leave education (after all, most of us are only at university for a few years). Find other ways to give yourself a career boost through volunteering, doing a summer internship, or another kind of work experience placement.
Where are you trying to get to?
If you’re drifting towards university because it’s what everybody else is doing, it’s time to stop and ask yourself where you’re trying to get to.
Don’t forget that by going to university, you’ll be taking on a lot of debt from the loans you take out to pay for your tuition fees and living costs. Most universities charge about £9,000 per year in fees so over a three-year course you’ll tot up a bill in the region of £27,000 for your course alone.
You’ll also be committing yourself to a further three years of study, so you should certainly think twice if you’ve struggled with your revision or put off your coursework till the night before the deadline.
And let’s not forget there’s no guarantee of a job at the end of your course. This is particularly true if you haven’t given any thought to your career when choosing your degree subject.
If there’s no clear path from university to employment and you’re not of a naturally academic bent, there might be better options for you.
It’s impossible to make these big decisions if you don’t know where you want to get to in the first stage of your working life. Don’t panic if you’re feeling directionless – use the resources on our site to help you make your career plans before you decide on your next steps:
- Read our post on planning your career to decide what matches your interests and skills.
- Use our career zones to learn more about the areas of work you’re interested in.
When you know where you’re going, you’ll be able to find out whether you need a university degree to get there, whether university is one of a number of routes, or whether an apprenticeship or training programme might be a better way into the job or area of work you want to pursue.
So what other options are there?
You’ll come out with qualifications equivalent to a foundation degree or higher, and some degree apprenticeships even let you study for a master’s. This means there’s often an element of study and you might spend some of your time at university. But you’ll always be learning about the theory behind your job, whereas many traditional university courses tend to be quite abstract.
There’s much more choice than you might assume from the traditional notion of an apprenticeship as a way into a skilled trade like plumbing or carpentry. A higher apprenticeship could take you into engineering, marketing (the creative side of selling stuff), accountancy (balancing the finances for different firms) or even laboratory science (cool hands-on research stuff).
Training programmes are similar to apprenticeships (and sometimes they’re just apprenticeships in another guise) but they tend to be tailor-made by big companies like finance firms looking to train up new recruits. Instead of studying for a degree, you’ll often get professional qualifications directly related to the area of work, but sometimes you’ll get the chance to do a degree through your employer as well (often after you’ve done your initial qualifications).
If this sounds like a good route for you, learn more about the different paid training options open to school leavers or check out apprenticeships and training programmes you can apply for through our site.
This infographic outlines the different options and paints a picture of students’ views on them:
So if you’ve started asking yourself the question "is university for me?", the answer may very well be yes – but there might just be better options out there.
In summary, here’s a checklist of questions you should work through to help you make your decision.
- Where am I trying to get to?
- Will a degree help me get there?
- Do I need to take on student debt?
- Do I want to study for another three years?
- What are the pros and cons of the different options open to me?
There are plenty of other pros and cons of going to university. In this video, students talks about the reasons for and against going to university based on their own experiences, circumstances and career plans:
We hope this article has helped you move closer answering the question "is university for me?" For more guidance, check out our post on alternatives to university.