The big debate: Is university the right choice for every school leaver?

The big debate: Is university the right choice for every school leaver?

In 2022, 37.5% of school leavers in the UK went on to study at a university. The percentage of students from independent schools is even higher – a whopping 87.6% left school and went on to university. Teachers often offer guidance and advice when it...


In 2022, 37.5% of school leavers in the UK went on to study at a university. The percentage of students from independent schools is even higher – a whopping 87.6% left school and went on to university.

Teachers often offer guidance and advice when it comes to next steps for school leavers. So, if your students are asking you, ‘Should I go to university?’, it might be worth considering the pros and cons of university before you offer an unqualified ‘Yes’.

Too often, the assumption is that university is the best option for every student, but that’s not necessarily true. Let’s look at the pros and cons of university and see if it really is the right choice across the board.

The benefits of university

Attending university is an aspirational choice for lots of school leavers, and there’s a good reason for that. There are a multitude of benefits to attending university beyond getting a degree. The experience of higher education can be hugely influential when it comes to personal, social and professional development.

1. The acquisition of knowledge

If your students dream of pursuing a professional career in a field like medicine or journalism, then studying for a university degree will give them the essential knowledge and skills they’ll need for a successful career. Through lectures, tutorials and exams, they’ll gain specialised knowledge and a profound understanding of their chosen subject. This will give students a strong foundation when they enter the job market, and allow them to keep building on their knowledge as they progress in their careers.

2. The development of soft skills

However, even if your students don’t have a particular career in mind, university can still be very beneficial. Studying any subject at university level will foster critical thinking, as well as analytical and communication skills, as students research, debate and evaluate information. These skills will prove useful long after university, as students find themselves empowered to make informed decisions and solve complex problems.

3. Personal growth

Outside of the intellectual stimulation that university offers, it also provides students with lots of opportunities to explore their interests. There are numerous clubs, societies and organisations which allow students to develop extracurricular hobbies and widen their social circles. It’s a rich environment for personal growth and self-discovery, which in turn helps students to develop self-confidence and interpersonal skills.

4. An international network

Spending three or four years in university gives students the opportunity to build a big personal network. Through socialising, tutorials, lectures and clubs, university students get to know their peers, teachers and professors, so that by the time they graduate they’ll have a network of connections in their field. These connections can open the doors to career opportunities, mentorship and support in navigating working life.

5. Better earning potential

University graduates earn more over the course of their lives than school leavers who don’t attend university. Obviously, there are no guarantees – but attending university can often offer a better chance of higher earning potential and long term financial security than going into a job straight from school.

The drawbacks of university

However, university is not the right choice for every school leaver. There can be significant drawbacks to attending university if it’s not the right decision for that student.

1. The financial investment

University is an expensive decision to make. International students’ tuition fees for UK universities have been rising steadily over the last few years, and graduates often leave university with a debt that will take them years or decades to pay off. What’s more, although statistics are on the side of university graduates, there’s no guarantee that they’ll leave university and go straight into a well paying job. So, a university degree is a big investment, with no guarantee of return.

2. The pressure to specialise

It’s not unusual for students to have a false start at university. After all, it’s a big decision to make at a relatively young age, and lots of students get halfway through their first year and realise that they’ve made the wrong choice of subject. If school leavers aren’t sure about the field they’d like to work in, taking some time to explore their options can be beneficial, instead of going straight from school to university.

3. A changing job market

With the advent of generative AI, the job market will change beyond recognition in the next few years, with the biggest changes predicted to be in the field of finance, law, media and customer service. The knowledge that students acquire at university isn’t necessarily the knowledge they will need to navigate the enormous changes ahead.

4. Emotional pressure

University can be an enriching experience, but it’s not the right choice for everyone. Some students can struggle to keep up with the workload, and find being away from their usual environment overwhelming. University staff don’t always have a lot of time available to give a lot of individual support. So, for students who struggle with executive functioning skills like organisation, time management, focus and planning, the type of independent study expected at university can feel overwhelmingly difficult. It’s possible that for these students, a differently structured learning experience would be more appropriate for their learning style.

5. Opportunity cost

What is opportunity cost? Well, it refers to the opportunities that you miss while you’re busy doing something else. There is an opportunity cost for students who leave school and head straight into a three or four year degree. After all, there are so many other options for school leavers: gap years, online learning, apprenticeships and vocational training. These options might offer more hands-on, practical experience – and students could be missing out on these options while they’re studying for a degree that might not serve them quite as well.

How to advise your students on university

Really, the best way to advise your students whether university is the right choice for them is to learn what their goals are and then guide them accordingly. For example, if you have an academic student who wants to be a geologist and is talented at science, then studying geology at university is definitely the right choice for them after they leave school. However, for a more practically-minded student who wants to be a chef, university might not be the best use of time or resources to help them achieve that goal.

So, when it comes to advising students on their post-school destinations, the best way to help them make a decision is to really think about how their personal ambitions influence potential paths! That way, every school leaver will move on to an experience that will help them fulfil their potential and achieve their goals.

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