University versus work - Hurstpierpoint College

University versus work

Brian Schofield, Head of Upper Sixth at Hurst College, gives his thoughts and advice on the university versus work debate as life choices after school

The young man’s voice was confident and clear over the murmur of a busy office. “I’ve no regrets whatsoever. I always knew this was the right thing for me, it’s just a natural fit. I’m already training new recruits and I should be leading my own team in a couple of years. The office is in Battersea, so I’m living in a flat share in Balham. It’s all worked out brilliantly.”

I couldn’t fail but be impressed with this Hurst alumnus, making headway (and a decent salary) in a technology recruitment consultancy firm. Particularly as he had only just turned 19 years of age. Could you have wandered into an office and started work straight out of school? Perhaps you did and remain sceptical about British middle class obsession with the expensive rite of passage that is university.

I, for one, certainly needed uni, as a time to grow up and to gain a sense of direction, having a lot of fun in the process. But young people are increasingly aware that university is not for everyone, nor is it always tremendous value for money. Schools need to respond to this shift, dedicating time, and resources to researching alternative next steps, while being cautious not to sacrifice any student’s precious future to faddism.

University versus work

At Hurst, our research into alternatives to university has thrown up several reasons to be cautious about burning your UCAS guidebook too hastily.

Firstly, there’s not as much choice of reputable alternative pathways as you might think. Degree apprenticeships are a thing of wonder. Another alumnus recently started work at a surveying firm in Canary Wharf within weeks of his A-level results, and will have a degree in surveying, debt free, by the time he’s 23. Whilst degree apprenticeships are rapidly growing, they are not all geared up for school leavers. Over 50% of people who start a degree apprenticeship are actually over 25, and some ‘degree apprenticeships’ actually require you to have a degree!

Secondly, university is less exposed to the slings and arrows of economic fortune than most of the alternatives. Universities don’t make their students redundant when recessions (or pandemics) bite. And finally, as my young friend in the Battersea recruitment consultancy put it: “Skipping uni and heading straight into work is only for people with a really clear idea of what they want to do. Work is not the best place to ‘find yourself’.”

Two trends at work

He’s absolutely right. At Hurst, we do worry about young people sleepwalking into university – but sleepwalking straight from school into a job is also a worry. There are clearly two trends at work, which schools and parents need to respond to. First is the shift away from university as a default option. The second is towards more uni, and the increasing likelihood that students will gain a sense of direction during their undergraduate years, but only gain their first professional job after a career-orientated Masters. Parents may not be delighted to hear that, but we are becoming more European in this regard – Batchelors, then Masters, then finally a pay check.

My best advice is to stop seeing the choice as so binary. University remains a marvellous adventure but must be treated more like work. Securing internships, taking up the offer of a year in industry, maybe starting a micro-business whilst at still at uni. If young people want to miss out on uni altogether, they need plenty of specialist guidance – and those who choose the well-trodden UCAS path also need to know it no longer automatically leads to professional employment. As is so often the case, we must accept that the relative simplicity of our salad days is not so accessible to the young people we watch over today.

So, the final piece of advice is increasingly becoming another Hurst mantra: It’s important to find a great place after school – at uni or in the workplace – but it’s more important to be a great person. That’s how to cope with the uncertainty this century brings.


Read more about life after school provision at Hurst College

Learn more about degree apprenticeships