This may seem like a strange question to ask, given the central place of universities in our society and the sheer number of careers that require a university degree as a bare minimum. But amid rising student debt and questions about the sustainability of the UK Higher Education market, the question is increasingly asked in the media, often accompanied by the still more loaded question: "Whom is university for?".

In an article for the Huffington Post last week, Graham Galbraith, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, tackles one of the most commonly-advanced arguments about the student debt crisis: that "some young people should be prevented from going to university even – perhaps especially – if they want to. As long, of course, as it is other people’s children!" This point of view, Galbraith argues, arises in turn from "a bizarrely narrow idea of what a university is or does". Many people fail to grasp that these days universities offer undergraduate courses in many subjects that were once considered vocational, and have an outmoded idea of undergraduate life that consists of "esoteric discussions over sherry in the common room."

So what is university for in the twenty-first century? It is true that more and more people get a degree, and merely having one is an entry requirement to many jobs rather than the differentiating factor that, twenty or thirty years ago, might have set the degree holder apart from other applicants. And it's also true that today's UK undergraduate student pays more and incurs more debt for the privilege of gaining a degree than ever before. But there are still factors that make attending university a uniquely rich experience and the best possible preparation for the adult world of work.

In summary, university is a holistic experience

Even though statistically graduates find better – and higher-paying – jobs than those who haven't been to university, the rising cost of Higher Education means that choosing a university degree isn't the economic no-brainer it once was. But your university experience is about far more than the certificate you obtain at the end of it, or the grades you get in your classes. The Higher Education Career Services Unit lists some of the many "intangible" benefits of university study, and some of them may surprise you.

Here's a taster:

  • Graduates are healthier.
    Statistically, people with a university degree are significantly more likely to enjoy "excellent health" and to exercise regularly, and less likely to smoke and to suffer from obesity or depression!
  • It's all about the kids.
    Graduates are more likely to read to their children and to be engaged in their children's education, with the result that children of people with a university degree statistically do better in school than those whose parents didn't go to university.
  • Graduates are community-minded.
    Graduates – especially men – who went to university are more likely to vote and far more likely to be members of voluntary organisations than those who didn't go to university. The knock-on benefits to a community of having a university-educated population are therefore very considerable.

Graduates are also more likely to hold positive attitudes towards inclusion, equality and diversity – which may be because universities tend to emphasise critical thinking skills, and may also be because university students are more likely to interact outside their usual social group than the population as a whole. Then, of course, there's the anecdotal evidence that university friendships are uniquely close bonds that endure for life. And, depending on where you're a student, the networks you develop during your studies may be at least as valuable as the academic knowledge you gain.

Although the price of entry is high and rising, your tuition fees go towards so very much more than academic instruction and a paper qualification.