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20 August 2015

It is now fashionable to decry university as a waste of money – but it’s still worth it

The cost of university remains a price worth paying.

By Tim Wigmore

What a waste of money. In return for an average of £44,000 of debt, students get an average of only 14 hours of contact time a week. Annual fees have risen from £1,000 to £9,000 in the last decade, but lecture and tutorial time at university has barely risen at all. And graduating doesn’t even provide any guarantee of a decent job: six in ten grads today are in non-graduate jobs.

No wonder it has become fashionable to decry many universities as little many than elaborate con-tricks. There’s a lot for students to complain about, especially after the last Budget: the repayment threshold for paying back loans will be frozen for five years, meaning that lower-paid graduates have to start repaying their loans; and maintenance grants have been replaced by loans, meaning that students from poorer backgrounds face higher debt than those with wealthier parents.

Yet it still pays to go to university. If going to university doesn’t work out students pay very little – if any – of their tuition fees back: you only start repaying when you are earning £21,000 a year. Almost half of graduates – those who go on to earn less  will have a portion of their debt written off.

And even those who don’t have to repay all their tuition fees tend to earn far more than those who eschewed going to university. Over a lifetime the graduate premium is £200,000, over four times the debt students accrue. Especially as the system of repayment for tuition fees effectively insures graduates against relatively low-paid careers, this means that a university education still offers an extraordinary rate of return.

It’s not just the lectures and tutorials that are important. “Education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars,” Stephen Fry observed. Students do not merely benefit while at university; studies show they go on to be healthier and happier than non-graduates, and also far more likely to vote.

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Whatever your talents, it is extraordinarily difficult to get a leading job in most fields without having been to university. Recruiters circle elite universities like vultures. Many top firms will not even look at applications from those who lack a 2.1 from a Russell Group university. Students at university also meet those likely to be in leading jobs in the future, forming contacts for life. This might not be right, but school-leavers who fail to acknowledge as much risk making the wrong decision about going to university.

Perhaps the reason why so many universities offer their students so little is they know studying at a top university remains a brilliant investment even if you don’t learn anything. Studying at university will only become less attractive if employers shift their focus away from where someone went to university – and there is no sign of that happening anytime soon. School-leavers may moan, but they have little choice but to embrace university and the student debt that comes with it. 

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