As youth unemployment rocketed to a record high this week it was reported that 965,000 young people between the ages of 16-24 are out of work; a total of more than one in five. Experts like Andrew Cave, from the Federation of Small Businesses, explained that the recession has hit young job seekers hardest, as start-up companies and smaller businesses where graduates often find first employment are side-lined and forced to close, whilst bigger businesses are able to choose from a vast field of over-qualified candidates.

Youth unemployment is at more than double the national rate of 7.9%, suggesting that young people and graduates have been the worst casualties of the recession as well as the slowest group to begin to recover. As universities prepare to charge record tuition fees of £9000, and graduate unemployment soars, prospective students are beginning to wonder whether a degree is worth the price.

Does a degree make you more employable?

There are two very different ways to look at the situation. On the one hand, as record unemployment creates a fiercely competitive job market, one could argue that a degree at any price is necessary in order to have a chance at beating off the competition and catching an employer’s eye. As Cave warns of the development of a “two tier economy”, graduates are likely to have a higher chance of achieving interviews for positions in the upper level of the job market than those without a university degree. Apart from anything else, it seems that having a degree is likely to be a probable initial benchmark used by employers to narrow the field when faced with literally thousands of applicants for a single position.

True, £30,000 is a huge burden of debt to consider getting into for a university degree, but if it is going to propel you into a high-earning position that will allow you to pay it off within a reasonable time, it will eventually make better financial sense than foregoing a university degree and joining the 20.5% young unemployed.

Is work experience essential to finding a job?

On the other hand, as 2200 people competed for 43 jobs prior to the opening of a new Waitrose store this month, one could just as well argue that competition is fierce at every level of the market, and that it is work experience and hands-on job knowledge, not academic achievements, that employers are looking for in the current climate. Hundreds of university leavers are searching fruitlessly for jobs far below their level of qualification and finding themselves unsuccessful, with graduate unemployment rates also at a record 15-year high. With this being the case, it seems nonsensical to accumulate vast amounts of debt merely to start the race three years behind a school leaver who went straight into employment and has been gradually moving up the ladder whilst you have been spending thousands of pounds to study at university.

A degree is a long-term investment

Some will argue of course that there is a longer term view to be taken, and that the benefits and skills of a university qualification will be reaped for years to come, regardless of whether or not they result in an immediate appointment in this difficult economic climate. It is this consideration that is leading prospective students to question the measurable ‘value’ of a degree course when taking into account the astronomical fees they would be paying off for years to come after completing it.

How much is your degree really worth?

Faced with £30,000 of debt, hundreds of students at top UK universities are starting for the first time to evaluate the relative value for money of their degree courses; the number of lectures they attend per week, the hours of actual face-to-face tuition provided, and the measurable transferable skills they accumulate during the course. Students are likely to demand more and more of academic institutions as they seek to ‘get their money’s worth’ out of the new, higher tuition fees, yet universities themselves will in fact be operating with exactly the same budgets as before, as higher fees will only replace the enormous deficit left by the withdrawal of 90% of government funding.

Are some courses worth more than others?

This growing consumerist attitude towards further education is also likely to have a potentially devastating impact on less vocational courses and institutions, from arts and media to philosophy and performance based degrees. such as law and medicine, as students gamble with much higher stakes they are increasingly going to start putting their money on ‘safer’ scientific and vocational degrees concrete paths to the job market upon graduation.

What about a master's or PhD?

Yet another issue is the spike in demand for masters and PhD courses, which have seen 7.4% growth during the recession as many of those made redundant went back to study and others flocked to add to their qualifications in an effort to make themselves more employable. In a market where so many applicants now hold doctorates and master’s degrees, the value of a massively overpriced undergraduate degree is even more likely to be called into question.
So should school leavers hang their hopes on the employment-enhancing properties of a university degree and saddle the burden of enormous graduate debt as a necessary evil accumulated along the way? Or is now the time to shun further education in favour of good old-fashioned experience and opportunities created through hard work and networking? The jury is out.