What is the point of studying a degree?

Last night, thanks to @Jim_Dickinson and @AaronPorter‘s Mum, I found out that BBC current affairs show, Newsnight, had a feature asking about the point of studying a degree at university.

I feel the Newsnight piece asked the wrong questions. I’ve always argued that the student experience is the whole experience, not just the degree. That’s why the experience of someone who doesn’t go to university can be just as rewarding. It’s what the person, as an individual, makes their experience.

photo by Abulic Monkey

photo by Abulic Monkey

Jeremy Paxman talked to Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of Million+, and Michelle Dewberry, 2006 winner of The Apprentice.

Dewberry said, “I wanted to earn money”, and she set out to do that without university. Making money, even lots of it, doesn’t require a degree.

This may be a misconception among some people. So just to make it clear, if your main aim is solely to make money, university isn’t the solution. University may or may not help, but it’s not the way forward if all you want to do is roll around in cash. And the sooner someone starts putting their money-making plans into action, the sooner they’ll start to see money coming in. A few years at uni may just hold things up!

Therefore, taking the non-university route is most successfully travelled in one of these two circumstances:

  1. With a clear vocation/career in mind that does not require university. It may require an apprenticeship, no formal education at all, or education ‘on-the-job’ at a later stage;
  2. With a passion and will so great that the individual knows what they want and how they’re going to get it.

Much of the magic of university is that higher learning can help uncover passions, it can bring about opportunity that may not have presented itself outside an academic institution, and it can allow intense focus on learning and teaching that may not be available elsewhere.

Higher Education (HE) has many benefits. That doesn’t mean everyone should go to university, but it does mean everyone should be given the choice.

The other question asked on Newsnight was that of qualification inflation. Why does a job or career now require a degree if it once required only GCSEs or A-Levels? Pam Tatlow hit the nail on the head when she said, “I don’t think that any job just stays still”. She went on to suggest that qualification inflation is created by employers, rather than universities.

I have no argument with Pam Tatlow’s remarks; she held a good argument to the question asked. The question itself, however, is not entirely relevant for students. With 43% of school leavers now going into HE, it’s clear that the situation has indeed changed over time. But regardless of what qualifications are required to get on in life, there is more to uni life than simply studying.

Granted, there are people out there who don’t make much use of their three or four years at uni. Maybe they just don’t care. But most likely, they probably don’t know how to make the most of their experience.  If I could go back, I would do things differently to enhance my experience, yet I’m this passionate about university ANYWAY!  It just goes to show how much is possible.

An important question to ask is, how can students discover new opportunities at university and actively develop opportunities that have already come their way?

Going back to the Newsnight feature, Pam Tatlow made these points:

  • “There’s not one path to success.”
  • “One size does not fit all.”
  • “There is not one route into success.”

You’ll notice these all make the same point. Tatlow was speaking in terms of whether or not you choose to study a degree. She’s absolutely right. And the same can be said for students already studying a degree. The future success of a student is not guaranteed because of the degree, it is because of the path they have taken. And different people walk down different paths.

I’m sorry if that sounds too philosophical, but you can’t compare HE with success. You can use HE to find success and you can use HE along the way to build something successful, but nobody should suggest that all who go into HE will be successful.

Don’t get me wrong, the aim should be to help all who go into HE to find success. So arguing about the point of a degree is pointless in itself. The question is too broad and ends up working off subjective opinions as opposed to proper facts.

The Newsnight piece questioned degrees such as Golf Course Management. But if your passion is to be heavily involved in the golfing business, what is so wrong in following a vocation and using HE to help get you closer to your dream? And what is the harm in a degree that covers professional practice, project management, events experience, finance, coaching, staff management, and so on? Surely these are all transferable skills?

My passion for Higher Education doesn’t come from the degree I studied. But I wouldn’t have found that passion if I’d not studied a degree.

The degree is the start of a journey, not the destination.


  1. I think the reason this question gets asked is because university has become the default option. It’s great that almost everybody has that option now, but as you say, its not right for everyone.

    This is why I really despise the 50% in higher education target. Is that based on how many people actually want to go, or is it just a nice round number? The target should be “100% have the realistic option of going to university”… but of course that’s so much harder to measure and claim victory over.

  2. Nick, remember that the 50% was an ‘aspiration’, not a target. 😉

    That’s why your suggestion of “100% have the realistic option of going to university” would have surely been a bigger winner…even if victory couldn’t be claimed.

    I didn’t understand what the 50% was all about. I just want the choice to be available to all who want it and that everyone understands what is on offer so they can make the most of their choice.

  3. Small point… Martin, I totally agree with your parting comment “The degree is the start of a journey, not the destination”. I guess the predominant problem as I see it is that the way secondary and further education is currently (or at least was in the past 10 years) geared up means that students are not instilled with this ethos so a lot of people end up “floating” through university because they haven’t really considered what happens next. This was my experience and if I could go back and do it all again, I would definitely encourage myself to make more plans during my last year. One of the reasons why so many graduates are coming out of uni now and not going straight into jobs is because they are not passionate about what they want to do and employers pick up on this. We want people who know what they want and can hit the ground running! I also agree with Nick’s comments that everyone should have an equal opportunity to apply to university but that where this is not the best route, they should be encouraged to do something else that is just as worthwhile instead.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Louise. I was speaking with someone today about “floating” through university. His experience is that, without other options, university is a default without a focus at the end of it. His experience of HE sounds similar to the one you mention.

    That is why I don’t believe the degree itself should be brought into question. This is about engagement on all levels. I’m sure most of us have gone to uni without a passion or a detailed plan in mind. So give students the tools, encouragement and self-belief to let them develop opportunities and subsequently help turn them into passions. These passions may not end up being specific to the degree they studied.

    If an increasing number of students end up with a degree, but nothing more than a vague idea of where they’re headed next, it is the overall idea of university that fails, not just the degree.

  5. I do not think that university will be open to all, whether a choice or not, simply because most people can not afford it: Some people I know don’t want to go into debt, get a loan, for morality issues; and some just don’t want to get into debt full stop. The government believe that education will benefit society but everyone is not the same and society is all collective talk anyway – this is something Labour fail to grasp. Another issue I find is poverty; alot of people who are on middle income, don’t see the effects of poverty, and I wouldnt say this was ignorance but something they have not experienced. Poverty shapes a persons ideas, thoughts; if that person is not philosophically educated then he/she could never make his life any better, but at least the government are at least trying to help.
    Then you have some people who don’t believe in education because they already question and critically think, and wonder ‘what is the point of me learning this?’…
    University has been blown out of proportion and should not be promoted in the way it is…But it always will be promoted because the government know there is nothing else for young people if that 43% came out of education.

    1. One way the situation can be improved is by helping younger people to understand what they can get from the university experience. It’s not just about getting a degree and it’s not key to all successful careers. The road to university should begin a lot earlier. The expectations also need to be addressed by way of an overview.

      Currently, there are those who don’t go to university but would benefit. Likewise, there are those who do go but don’t make the most of it and, quite possibly, would have found it more fruitful to ignore Higher Education.

      Widening participation is meant to provide the opportunity of education to all those who can benefit from it. If they cannot benefit, for whatever reason, fair enough. If they can, they should be granted access. And all students, whatever their circumstances, should be helped in understanding what their experience is about and how they can make the most of that experience. That’s one of the reasons I do what I do on this blog and beyond.

      You’re right, university education shouldn’t always be promoted the way it is. I think the changes taking place right now, whatever they result in, will change the way in which universities (and the HE sector as a whole) deal with promotion. The coming months and years are important for pretty much anyone touched by HE now and in the future. That includes future students, parents, businesses, and so on. It will impact a great many people.

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