Fees or no fees, university may not be the answer

Yesterday, Theresa May elaborated on why she is freezing university tuition fees in her speech at the Conservative Party Conference.

The PM’s policy initiative has been given short shrift by some discontented Tories and political commentators alike.

Holding fees at £9,250-a-year for students and increasing the earnings threshold for graduates to pay back debt has been dismissed as a damp squib, largely because Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to scrap fees altogether.

I completely understand why this debate dominates the agenda.

Accumulating debt to the tune of nearly £10k-a-year for three or four years – or more in some cases – is a hefty chunk of change for all but the very rich.

The 6.1% interest rate hardly seems fair either, despite the government’s argument that there is a significant amount of default.

And yet for all the problems, the real question about tertiary education is being missed: should talented teenagers be going to university in the first place?

Speaking as the father of six children, I know how easy it is to usher your offspring towards the standard academic goals of good GCSEs, A Levels and ultimately a decent degree.

A number of students themselves see university as a rite of passage, a hazy kaleidoscope of parties from freshers’ week through to the graduation ball – and in some cases with the bare minimum of work carried out to scrape through finals.

And not everyone who comes away with a degree finds it worth the paper it is printed on.

I do not dismiss the so-called “softer” degrees. Not everyone is going to study medicine at Cambridge or economics at LSE and actually an English literature or philosophy degree can develop critical thinking that will give young people relevant business skills.

But there are some courses that do appear to deserve the opprobrium heaped upon them.

We’ve all read the stories about courses with modules that focus on David Beckham or Harry Potter, or three-year commitments to surfing studies and golf management.

Part of this drive to make university the norm came from Tony Blair’s expansion of higher education and New Labour’s desire to push 50 per cent of people under the age of 30 in that direction.

I don’t seek to criticise politicians past or present for what are often well-meaning ideas because I don’t really do politics – I do jobs.

But once you strip away the social expectations, wouldn’t a lot of 18-year-olds in fact be better off missing university altogether and getting more relevant experience instead?

Would a film studies undergraduate at an underperforming institution actually be better served by an apprenticeship with a production company?

Would a directionless but ambitious school-leaver be better off ignoring that clearing place on a generic geography course and trying to learn coding instead, either through an apprenticeship or college?

Some reports estimate that 85% of the jobs we will be doing by 2030 have yet to be created.

Pessimists use that statistic as evidence that we are facing mass unemployment in a few years, but this is not the case.

We simply need to futureproof ourselves and today’s teenagers need to focus on that more than any other generation.

They need to learn how to be adaptable; learn how to be agile; learn how to learn new skills.

If they can get that from university, great. If they can’t, let’s not be tied to higher education as the only way into a career.

With UK productivity faring poorly against European competitors and Brexit around the corner, we need to think urgently about the paths being taken by the next generation of workers.

Getting better at matching skills to jobs is an obvious solution.

And you don’t need a degree in anything – or £30,000 of tuition fee debt – to reach that conclusion.