Going to university should be about more than just landing a well-paid job

When students are deciding whether to apply to university or go straight into work, we must encourage them to consider more than just return on investment. After all, there is more to life than an eye-popping salary, argues Kester Brewin
16th August 2019, 12:03am
Snakes & Ladders
Kester Brewin


Going to university should be about more than just landing a well-paid job


Their eyes lit up. Freya was telling the group of Year 13 students gathered for a last-minute revision session that she'd been offered an apprenticeship at one of the "big four" accountancy firms, and that they had just told her what her salary would be. No university - she would start in September.

"That's more money than I can ever think about earning," Molly said, jaw dropping.

It wasn't, but compared to the babysitting cash or the little bits some students had been paid for shifts at the local cinema and helping out at Saturday drama clubs, it seemed like riches beyond belief.

To go to university or not? With mean levels of student debt at more than £50,000, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, graduates are now "worse off" because of changes in repayment arrangements and concerns about how far different degrees will actually improve employability, so this is a very live question for secondary school students, and therefore a very live question for secondary staff having to offer advice.

We were visiting for the day during half term so, as time wasn't at the highest premium, I stopped and asked the students to do some thoughtful calculations: should they go to university and have all those experiences, meet all those people, have the long holidays, the chance to study in depth but come out with a significant amount of debt? Or should they go directly into paid employment, with no debt, get on with a career, get some savings going but have none of the great experiences that going to university could offer?

The debate was fierce. "You could still go out with all your friends who have chosen uni," one insisted.

"Yeah, but they'd always want you to shout them drinks."

"Not in the kind of dive bars that students go to …"

"… which wouldn't be the kind of place you'd want to be in once you were working."

And so it went round.

I then intervened and asked them to do something much more difficult: remove any thought of money from their arguments.

The philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek has famously written that, for most people, "it is easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism", and the perplexed faces in front of me did nothing to dispel that impression.

But I persisted. How would your decision be affected if, at the end of a degree and the end of three years' work, your financial situation was equal?

This, I believe, is a fundamental question because it gets to the heart of what we think an education is for. In turn, it is a hugely important question for schools because the pressures over university applications push back on to us, and the ripples of anxiety about A-level grades and making the right choices run right back to decisions about GCSEs which, for some (like my own daughter), are happening at the end of Year 8.

On a path to a higher salary

For many, it is impossible to prise apart the question of degree choice and financial implication. As I write this, a student has just won a payout of £61,000 from Anglia Ruskin University following her claim that it misleadingly advertised the kind of employment uplift she might expect from her degree in international business strategy - a qualification that the student claimed was, in reality, a "Mickey Mouse degree". She had paid her money to study and expected a return on her investment, she said.

While most don't see things in such stark terms, this is the underlying equation that many students I teach adhere to. They go to university to get a higher qualification that will set them on a path to more well-remunerated employment. To put it bluntly, it's the Game of Life: you pay out a bit for "college" to get access to the jobs that pay more, and hope that you're lucky and keep landing on the "good squares".

Although, as Žižek implies, it is hard to see things through different lenses, this consumer-capitalist view of university choice hasn't always been dominant. In the traditional language we still use about university life, we see vestiges of a different mindset, one that I think needs re-emphasising as a correction to the dominance of financial thinking.

Students still "go up" to university and, upon graduating, then "come down". Beyond the governing metaphor of a degree as an economic boost, this is university as a period of spiritual and philosophical reflection. In the oldest sense, students went "up" as if ascending a mountain or high place to join a community of monastic scholars. Having then studied with them and reflected on how they might spend their lives, they then "came down" to begin their ministry, their service in one form of public life or another.

Central to this in the earliest medieval universities was the study of Aristotle's writings which, given that they took in logic, mechanics, geology, philosophy, biology, physics, astronomy, optics and ontology, gave a pretty broad look at the whole spectrum of knowledge.

About as far from a "vocational education" as we might define it now, the purpose was - in the proper definition - to give students a chance to reflect on their "calling" or vocation and decide how they were going to serve when they returned to the communities they had come from.

Sadly, this seems to be missing from the conversations we now have with students. The focus is on "what will I get?" rather than "what will this enable me to give?" This is not the fault of students themselves but it is the product of the consumer mindset that has infected every area of thought. It is this mindset that has led - entirely logically within its own frame of reference - to the increase in two-year degree courses. Why spend three years studying when it is more efficient to do the required modules in two? Efficiency is the keyword: students are paying so they want a faster return on their investment.

Returning to the conversations with my own students, I encouraged them to try, if at all possible, to think beyond the eye-popping salaries of some jobs and about what it was they wanted to spend their lives doing, what it was they were passionate about. Unsurprisingly, most weren't sure. They had been in full-on education since they were 5, most likely at schools that their parents chose for them, and were only now able to start making serious choices for themselves.

A period of reflection

My argument to them is that this is what a good university experience will offer: an extended period of reflection. Yes, some students jump straight into vocational degrees such as law, medicine or engineering, but we should be cheering on those who opt for something not obviously vocational such as history, classics, languages or mathematics.

To the consumer-minded and efficiency-focused, this will smack of the worst possible thing: waste - a waste of money and a waste of time. The inputs won't offer obvious and great immediate returns. Yet this "waste" is precisely what we should celebrate about university life. Time with no clear utility. A breathing space to experience deeper and slower study, lots of people, cultures, political viewpoints, arts, sciences - all of this a melting pot out of which an alloy of personal passions and drives solidifies, one that isn't so much focused on what they can extract from life as on what they can give.

It's a simplistic example, perhaps, but without this "wasted time" at university, we would likely have had no Monty Python, no Radiohead, no French and Saunders, no Everything But The Girl and, dare we say it, no Facebook. All these endeavours came out of the time that university afforded outside of the courses being studied.

In this model of time at university as a period of reflection before returning to serve a community, it is also for the community to reflect on how they want to value this opportunity. One might argue that if students study for no higher reason than to enhance their personal wealth-gathering potential, then a community might be within its rights to say that this time ought to be paid for by the student. But if we are to take a wider view, one that sees that a community can be massively enriched - musically, artistically, technologically - when young adults are gifted some time to "waste" reflecting on how they are going to serve that community, it is quite right that funding this ought to be something that we all do together: a grant rather than a loan, an investment by the community with no immediate expectation of return.

Changing the mindset from a consumer-led, personal-gain model of university life to one that sees the experience of studying for a degree as something "higher" will not be easy, and Žižek might even suggest that it is impossible. But, for my money, with inequality rife, with our planet desperately looking towards the end of its life as capitalism consumes it, it is part of our duty - as those who believe in the deeper purposes of education - to at least speak to this hope that the choices our departing students make might be made for the greater good. In my experience, this ignites a greater fire of excitement about the future than the prospect of a first pay packet, or crunching through a colour-by-numbers degree in order to leverage better cards with which to play this monetised game of what they think life is about.

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London. While working as a teacher, he has been a consultant for BBC Education, and is the author of a number of books on culture and religion. He tweets @kesterbrewin

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline "Your money or your life?"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters