Figures this week suggest that graduate unemployment is at the highest it has been for 17 years. With tuition fees set to rise to a staggering £9000, three times higher than the current rate, questions must surely be raised about the validity and worth of a pricy university degree.

As reader Ellen McNally asked in her comment on our previous blog, “what does a university education offer an 18 year old nowadays? Any drive towards propelling more young people into university needs to consider the number of recent graduates who cannot currently find work. Thanks to Labour’s ambition to get 50% of school-leavers into university, our graduates currently outnumber the available graduate jobs and with the fall-out of the job crisis being felt for a number of years, gaining a degree does not necessarily make you more employable.”

So what is the answer? Should students finishing their A levels be encouraged to go straight into apprenticeships? If so, why not draw the line even earlier and suggest that less academic pupils would be better off leaving school after GCSEs and getting a jump start on a more practical career? Who, if anybody, should still be going to university, and what should they be studying? With the announcement this week that the University of South Carolina has launched a ‘Lady Gaga Course’, the value of a university degree has never been more questionable, especially one that will cost you an average graduate debt of £40,000.

The release of these new figures is certainly not well timed for the coalition government, on the brink of saddling new university applicants with thousands of pounds worth of debt and lengthy repayment programs with interest set at a higher rate than inflation. There is every possibility that with students asking ‘what is the point of a degree anyway if there are no jobs?’ we could be on the brink of a social revolution that may see thousands less school leavers applying to university at all. But would that be a positive or a negative thing for the country as a whole?

Pros would include a surge of fresh, young talent into the workforce, and a return to old-fashioned values of apprenticeships and practical training rather than a workforce flooded with academically over-qualified, but practically untrained graduates competing for jobs. Competition for more academic jobs would reduce, making it easier for new graduates to find work. This, combined with a new, younger generation of earners would give the economy a much-needed boost, with a possible knock-on effect on the housing market as youngsters going straight into gainful employment would be more likely to look for their own place than to stay at home for several years whilst continuing to study.

The drawbacks however, are significant, with the risk that encouraging school leavers to eschew higher education could result in a less educated and skilled population, a fall in the quality and performance of UK universities and, subsequently the British workforce. Any reduction in the pool of applicants applying to university would inevitably have a negative effect on the quality of the candidates being offered places. If the academic ability of our university graduates is diminished then so will be the quality of our national standards of industry, business, law, politics, and all those areas for which our country’s performance on the international stage depends on an annual influx of excellent, highly academic and exceptionally well trained university graduates.

Many would suggest alleviating these concerns by raising standards at university, ensuring that only the most intelligent go on to higher education whilst those not cut out for academic study proceed immediately into the workforce. But who is to decide who does or does not have the right to a higher education? Is it really fair to say that a less academically gifted student has less right to work hard and earn a higher degree than their more ‘high achieving’ peers? Furthermore there is currently an even greater risk that with the government plans to raise tuition fees to an astronomical £9000 such a segregation between those who are university educated and those who are not might indeed arise again, but that it would be a divide based on financial, rather than academic considerations.

Whether or not a return to a greater number of apprenticeships and practical courses such as NVQs is desirable, it is certain that a return to an antiquated and unfair system of ‘education for the rich’ is not. Regardless of insufficient and vague talk about grants and scholarships, the government are drifting perilously close to creating such a two-tier system with their proposed removal of the cap on tuition fees.