University is an obvious option for many school leavers. Today, almost half of young people choose to pursue a degree compared to six decades ago when that fraction was just 5 to 10%. This is surely a positive trend, but might there also be a catch to blindly recommending university as the default choice for all students?

Michael Tefula, author of our new guide Is Going to Uni Worth It? uncovers why university shouldn’t be the default choice for all students.

For many graduates — this author included — university unlocks potential and opportunity. A degree in accounting and finance helped me to qualify as an accountant and that, in turn, spurred me on to work in the technology field as a professional investor.

I’ve met graduates across fields as diverse as history, mathematics, medicine, engineering, and architecture, who have all gone on to do exceptionally well in their fields both in terms of pay and fulfilment. In many cases, their degree helped.

Yet, university also fails a growing proportion of students. For example, in 2020 the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated that roughly 1 in 5 students are worse off financially if they go to university. This means that an estimated 70,000 UK students every year would do better financially if they didn’t go to university at all. A non-trivial number of degree holders, and unfortunately especially those in the creative arts, end up in jobs that pay far less than you would expect for someone who has decided to invest in their education with what is typically over £40,000 of graduate debt – a number which keeps growing by the way!

No wonder the share of students who believe that university is good or very good value for money has shrunk from just over half of students to a little over a quarter in 2021, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Deciding what to do after school shouldn’t just be about finances though. University can, of course, be a great environment for academic and personal growth. Those who want to pursue careers as researchers, scientists, and teachers for example, would do well to take the surest path into those roles. In these scenarios university is hard to beat.

But for other more vocational careers, university often lacks the practical knowledge and work experience that can best prepare someone for the workplace. For instance, a report by the recruitment website in 2020 found that just 15% of graduates felt completely prepared by their degree. More recently, the Chartered Institute of Management reported that almost 80% of employers believe that graduates aren’t ready for work.

Clearly, there are learning paths that work well for some people and paths that prove to be far less effective. As I delved into my research for Is Going to Uni Worth It?, I came to appreciate that university should not be the default choice for all students.

Today, viable alternatives to university exist. One such alternative is an already well-known and well-trodden path: the apprenticeship route. Not only do the highest-level apprenticeships now lead to pay that matches or exceeds that of graduates, they are also proving a better match for young people who prefer to learn practically.

An example of the kind of discoveries I made during my research is that construction apprenticeships – an area with a chronic skills shortage in the UK – can lead to individual annual earnings of more than £50,000. This particular route is probably more likely to put you in the top 10% of earners in the UK than the average university degree and as I found in my research, such potential benefits aren’t restricted to certain professions. Apprentices in careers ranging from law to arts and media can outearn their graduate equivalents.

Learner and employer surveys from the government show that over 90% of apprentices feel that their training prepares them well for their careers, and some 80% of employers report being satisfied with their training programmes. And even though the best apprenticeships can be more competitive than the best university programmes, there’s clearly something to these stats that make the apprenticeship path worth sharing with students as they think about what to do next.

Of course, university and apprenticeships aren’t the only viable choices when it comes to continuing education after school these days. People go about their journey in all sorts of different ways that can work out well for them – sometimes involving apprenticeships and/or university, and sometimes not. No doubt university will always attract the bulk of students. However, given the rapid rise in tuition fees, the limitations of university in practical learning and preparing students for the workplace, it’s about time university stopped being the default recommendation for all school leavers.

Michael Tefula’s insightful new publication delves deeper into the question, is going to uni worth it? This practical guide will help young people consider this decision from several perspectives, and includes the stories and advice of students that have chosen a range of different paths.