As students across the country prepare to make decisions about which UK University to apply to, the government’s plans for higher education remain in a shambles. With tuition fees at the top level of £9000 set to be charged by the vast majority of top UK Universities, it has now been suggested that cheaper places will be available for degree courses at community and sixth form colleges.

Will these courses, often vocational and specifically designed to lead immediately into employment upon graduation, provide much better value for money, or will they be seen as a poorer quality alternative, less respected as a qualification in the world of work?

Is College better value?

This week the BBC interviewed staff and students at Bradford College, where a wide variety of courses are available at a cost of £6700 per year, compared to the £8500 tuition fees at Leeds Metropolitan University (the institution that validates the College’s degrees). Compared to the University, Bradford College offers a much greater number of specifically vocational courses, from hairdressing and beauty therapy to ophthalmic dispensing, catering and hospitality.

Degree student Simon Hinken claimed his college provided much better value for money than university, and pointed out that “you get a lot more contact time” due to smaller class sizes and student numbers. Certainly many would argue that in this age of enormous tuition fees and huge graduate debts, to take a course that might lead immediately into employment, at a cost that will leave you with less debt to pay off, is by far the cleverest option for today’s students.

A two-tier education system?

But those in opposition to the government’s higher education scheme have claimed that this provision of cheaper degrees at less respected institutions risks causing a return to the old class-based university system, where the rich paid for impressive degrees from the best universities whilst the poor had to put up with polytechnic education and were then punished for it when their degree had less ‘value’ in the job marketplace. If the degrees provided by colleges were held in lower esteem than university qualifications by employers, then this certainly might become a huge social problem.

Is higher education worth it at all?

In the meantime, many high-profile business leaders such as Jill McDonald, UK boss of burger chain McDonald’s, are urging businesses to look beyond traditional graduate recruitment. She believes that school leavers should be brave about going straight into employment without gaining a degree first at all. McDonald argues that over half of the McDonald’s executive team started out working in one of their restaurants, and suggests that an expensive degree is not necessary to go far in the world of employment. She told the Institute of Directors Annual Conference: “we need to acknowledge the road many young people take today may not be the one we took in the past”.

What’s the answer?

So, amidst the chaos of tuition fees, grants, bursaries, universities and colleges, what on earth is the answer? Is it best to go all out for a top university degree, regardless of the £40,000 price tag, on the basis that the impressive qualification will guarantee you much higher earning power in the long run? Is it better to plump for a cheaper qualification from a less well-known college in the hope that having a more vocational degree will still get you into a good job, but without the same level of debt? Or is the answer simply to eschew further education altogether and jump straight into the world of work three years and several thousand pounds ahead of your university-attending counterparts? At this stage, the only thing that’s certain is that this generation of teenagers has far more difficult and complex decisions to make about its future than ever before.