Spencer Mehlman is the owner of www.notgoingtouni.co.uk.
Although I run an organisation called notgoingtouni.co.uk I am emphatically not against universities. They are incredible places for learning, populated with some of the most interesting and enthusiastic teachers you could ever meet. I believe that for many young people they will be the “right” next step. What enrages me to the point of teeth-grinding though is that there is a drive towards university which completely omits to mention the very valid alternatives. That’s categorically unfair on young people and I think the whole issue borders on the lunatic fringe of conspiracy.
Before I start twitching there is one statistic I would like to share with you. It didn’t make much of a noise in the press when the survey was revealed but I believe it is truly shocking.
In careers discussions 75% of 14-19 year olds had been informed about university, only 49% had been told about apprenticeships and 48% about other vocational qualifications. [City & Guilds survey]
So who is to blame for this state of affairs? I believe the genesis of this worrying statistic is from Tony Blair’s seemingly random pronouncement in 1999 that 50% of 18-30 year olds should experience higher education. No one has ever quite established why this 50% target was so important, other than to note that it makes for a choice soundbite. Since that time (and arguably before even then), schools have promoted university education as the premier destination for their leavers. Against a backdrop of hugely inflated costs and rising graduate unemployment the result is drop-out rates of anywhere up to 29%, depending on the institution attended.
What makes this all the more reprehensible is that the churn towards university continues despite the fact that study after study have noted that continued education and qualifications in other non-uni forms provide similar benefits in terms of earnings, employment and longevity. And it’s not just our schools that are institutionally-biased towards universities. Parents too are to blame – in our experience very few mums and dads would advise their children against going to university, or even make themselves aware of the excellent alternatives that exist. You sometimes wonder if these are the same parents who spend hours researching the potential negative impacts of vaccinations.
So what on earth is so alluring about the supposedly honeyed substance of universities that keeps schools and parents relentlessly spooning it to our young people? I believe it’s confusion. It’s the ghost of a generational memory from a time when university was inspiring, intellectually elitist and much more fun. It’s also the negative perception of vocational qualifications (“aren’t they for plumbers?”) that results in a snobbery that seemingly blinds people towards an honest evaluation of all the options available.
Shamefully, the university experience that students can hope to get these days will cost them in excess of £50,000 to acquire. This investment comes against a backdrop of graduate unemployment of 10%. But what about young creatives – are universities the best place to be? It’s hard to say emphatically, for some it would provide the perfect training, for others it would dull the edges that make for good work.
One thing that strikes me though is that as an industry you look for a different breed of worker. You want to send your young creatives a brief and be stunned at the original ideas that are returned. If the brief you issued was to create a personal curriculum of qualifications that give a breadth of experience, inspiration and fun wouldn’t you be disappointed if the £50,000 was spent simply on getting a degree? Aren’t there more inspiring, more fun and more experience that can be bought for £50,000? I think so.