Are degrees worth it?

  • Emma Finamore
  • Last updated 08 Dec 2016

A breakdown of the pros and cons of university, to help answer the question: Are degrees worth it?


How much you value a degree depends on a lot of factors, not least the job you hope to get at the end of it.

You might think that young people today face such financial difficulty if they attend university (through tuition fees and student debt) that you should consider other options, such as school leaver programmes or apprenticeships. You might think that education up to the age of 18 is enough and that your main priority should be gainful employment – which is also a part of school leaver programmes and apprenticeships, as well as standard full-time work.

Whatever position you come from, we have listed the pros and cons of modern university study, so you can come to an informed decision.

University: the cons

Most full-time students need a tuition fee loan, which covers the full cost of the tuition fee. Depending on where and what is being studied, this total can vary, as can the maintenance loan available to all eligible UK-domiciled students, to help pay for living costs at university.

The tuition fee and maintenance loans are added together to give the total amount of debt. It's difficult to say the exact amount of debt individuals will graduate with, but a typical student on a three-year course outside of London will to graduate with around £35,000 - £40,000 of student loan. This loan accrues interest. In England for example this is 5.5%.

After graduation, yearly repayments are set at 9% of whatever is earned above £21,000, regardless of the total loan amount.

For example, if a graduate earns below £21,000 they won’t have to pay back anything; and if they earn £25,000 a year they will repay £360 per year, £30 per month. This is the same however much was borrowed.

If a graduate earns £30,000 a year they will repay £804 per year, £67 per month. Again, this is the same however much was borrowed.

After all this debt, graduates are not guaranteed employment at a higher level, in fact the Office of National Statistics found in 2013 that almost half of recent graduates in the UK are in non-graduate jobs.

University: the pros

The latest Office of National Statistics report comparing graduates to non-graduates found that: 

Graduates were more likely to be employed than those who left education with qualifications of a lower standard

Non-graduates aged 21-30 have consistently higher unemployment rates than all other groups

Non-graduates aged 21-30 have much higher inactivity rates than recent graduates.

Research has shown that graduate starting salaries at the UK’s leading graduate employers is, on average, a whopping £29,000. A quarter of top graduate programmes will pay new recruits more than £35,000 when they start work and ten organisations are offering at least £40,000 to this year’s graduates. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone, but these are positions only available to university graduates.

Student debt, even though it can be large, does not affect the borrower’s credit rating, as student loans are not included on credit reference files. Any outstanding student debt is written off after 30 years, even if nothing has been paid back during that time (because the borrower wasn’t working or was earning below £21,000).

In fact, studies have estimated that over 70% of graduates won’t have paid their full loan back after 30 years. 


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