The bit of paper: how post-graduates really feel about their degrees

Is a University Degree Worth It

“The true value of a college education is intangible!” shouts an angry audience member. This is followed by the smug reply from Peter Gregory, the socially awkward billionaire, standing onstage: “the true value of snake oil is intangible as well”.

Of course, this scene from HBO sitcom Silicon Valley may differ from the reality in Britain today (in the use of the word “college” instead of “university” if nothing else), but it’s a neat summing up of the arguments on both sides. 

So how much is a degree worth?

For starters, let’s just look at pay. In 2018, the median salary for UK graduates was £34,000, whilst non-graduates earned only £24,000. Gregory’s Silicon Valley character is far more reminiscent of extreme outliers like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom dropped out of Harvard and only received honorary degrees after their immense successes.

But in terms of high-earners, UK stats still favour the graduate: In 2014, the Office of National Statistics claimed that “twenty percent of all adults who hold at least one university degree . . . now have wealth totalling at least £1 million”. Considering less than five percent of the UK are millionaires, the degree comes out looking pretty good. 

I spoke to Alex, 24, who graduated from a Russell Group University with a Masters in Physics. He landed a software developing job just two days later, and is now on a 40k salary. 

“It was worth the money, and worth the time as well, which is more important to me”

His workplace only hires graduates from a select list of Universities, so his degree was essential. That said, there are a number of other factors that mustn’t be ruled out: Alex was clearly industrious to have earned a Science degree, no doubt a long and painstaking process, and studying physics entails coding, a skill currently in high-demand, especially in his home county Warwickshire.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Shelley, 25, who studied Spatial Design. She completed her degree, admitting that “it does look good on a CV”, but left Uni with a sour taste. “Creativity is subjective. If the marker doesn’t like your work, they’ll mark you down”. This apparent flaw, along with accounts of sub-standard teaching and facilities, left Shelley asking what the fee really paid for.

Shelley hasn’t landed a job in spatial design since graduating, and this highlights an issue: how balanced are the benefits of a degree? In some cases, is the bit of paper itself more important to the University than skills, networking, and employment? Things get muddled when considering creative subjects, and the type of person who might choose them.

Pile of covered books

On this topic, I was lucky enough to have input from two people who took more-or-less the same course, at exactly the same institution, at around the same time, where one graduated, and the other dropped out.

Both Joe, 27, and Liam, 25, studied Professional Musicianship at an Institute of Modern Music, with the former specialising in songwriting and the latter in performance. Joe graduated, but says “it sucked a lot of my creativity out”. Despite accepting that the bit of paper is “something to fall back on”, and that it has been useful in getting multiple jobs teaching guitar, Joe found the course itself overly cutthroat and business-oriented. 

Many imagine University courses a free space where talent is honed and fostered, but even some creative subjects are starting to sound like an episode of The Apprentice. Some University’s roles appear mainly to assess rather than teach, and Joe admits “I should have chosen Music and Humanities at De Montfort”. 

He says that the teaching was of a high standard, but the atmosphere was counter-productive to expression, confidence, and the success of all bar a few, with the University’s image usually coming first. Both him and Shelley even suggested that the Universities were happy to sucker people in rather than allow reasonable doubt as to whether the course is right for the individual, giving even more gravity to, say, Alex’s degree, awarded by a rather exclusive institution. 

Meanwhile, Liam dropped out, with similar complaints about the course and University, but now works a well-paid tech job, though taking a few years longer to land it than Alex’s impressive two-day record. 

Liam says that not having a degree hasn’t hindered job searching, “though I changed my mind about what I wanted to do whilst on the course – I went in with the aim of teaching, and left not wanting to anymore”. 

Although he didn’t get his bit of paper, Liam doesn’t appear bitter about the large sums that he’ll be paying back nonetheless: “The student fees seem fair to me- the higher threshold for paying back which happened just before I started seems about right for young people starting a career after uni”.

His sentiments echo Alex’s: “I notice its presence on my payslip, but can’t complain. It just feels like a graduate tax”. The student fees are certainly a contentious issue, but it is worth noting that one has to be earning more than £18,935 a year before a penny is paid back, and the fee gets wiped entirely after thirty years. 

Perhaps the feeling of it hanging over Shelley and Joe’s heads is symptomatic of their courses failing them, especially in terms of fulfilment or high-paid employment. Funnily enough, our dropout seems unphased, possibly due to his job, but perhaps also the life skills and experience that even an unfinished degree can count towards.

God, it really is all rather intangible, isn’t it? From all the facts, opinions, statistics and personal accounts, perhaps it’d be better to draw a more case-by-case conclusion rather than sum it up with any one rule. 

For some, University life suggests a nurturing and liberal space that is in fact reserved for an institution’s poster children within a competitive environment. Others thrive off of this environment, and wouldn’t be suited to Conservatoires, or the kind of course which Joe regretted not applying for.

On the flipside, both my graduate and drop-out who earn big bucks are unphased by the fees, and Alex without a doubt feels that his degree was worth it: the money, time and effort.

It’s clear that different Universities treat different students in different ways, as does the outside world of employment and personal fulfilment. Not wishing to put a downer on creative subjects, I finished by speaking to Paulina, who studied Fine Art.

Paulina said that the course helped her develop as a person, aided her in getting her teaching assistant job, and that the fee “not only covered the teaching time, but also the expensive materials needed to experiment”. 

She is now saving up to study an MA in Fine Art, possibly leading to a PhD, and gave me this uplifting quote: “I have enjoyed every single bit of it. I feel like I have learnt a lot, and having received a first class degree has given me an enormous sense of achievement”. Sounds like readers ought to not only reflect on their own desires and abilities, but also to exercise discretion when choosing their path.

But, perhaps most importantly of all, remember that, right course or wrong, degree or no degree, you can bounce back, achieve, and pursue your goal! Contrary to what parents, schools, and society would have teenagers believe, time isn’t against you, and it’s never too late to make something of yourself.

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Louis Scheuer

Louis is a writer, musician, and filmmaker from Warwickshire. He likes long walks, thinking about the universe, and performing with his band Women Gone Missing.