Keren David

Rishi Sunak is wrong, it's always worth getting a degree

I didn't go to uni and it worked out just fine, but why should we deny our children the option?


Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech on the final day of a conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, at Queen's University in Belfast on April 19, 2023. - The Good Friday Agreement, brokered by Washington and ratified by governments in London and Dublin, largely ended three decades of devastating sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and intermittent terrorist attacks on mainland Britain. (Photo by Niall Carson / POOL / AFP) (Photo by NIALL CARSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

July 18, 2023 12:48

Don’t go to university, our prime minister is telling a new generation, and you’d expect me to agree with him.

After all, at 18, I turned down my place at Goldsmith’s where I could have spent three years working towards a degree in English literature and instead opted for an apprenticeship right here at the Jewish Chronicle. While my contemporaries were partying, taking drugs, writing essays and reading books (possibly not in that order), I was diligently reporting on Board of Deputies meetings and learning newspaper law and shorthand.

A career in local and national newspapers followed, before returning to my alma mater in 2016, where I am now the Managing Editor. I’ve also written 13 books. Vocational training, of the sort that the government are now championing, worked for me.

So why did I encourage my kids to get their degrees -  both in social science -  even though it involved vast amounts of debt and wasn’t always the top-class educational experience that I’d hoped they'd have?

Quite simply, a degree is for life. Vocational training is not. If you decide mid-career that you might like to change track (and I’m old enough to have seen a lot of people do that) then it’s a gigantic pain if you lack a first degree. All kinds of interesting pathways are blocked if they involve four years of study, rather than a year-long Masters. And many, many employers won’t even look at your CV because they use a degree as their first filter.

If you leave school at 18, your vocational training may well be for an industry that doesn’t exist anymore five decades later when you finally get your state pension. And much of those five decades may well be spent looking on as graduates whizz past you into better-paid, more senior roles. Yes, we have an Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, who left school at 16 to become an apprentice - but she also picked up two degrees along the way. And her colleagues are predominantly Oxbridge graduates, even if they aren’t great adverts for that route.

It's true that some degrees nowadays don’t seem to offer great value for money - thanks to a funding formula that rewards them for signing up students and barely scrutinises the education they’ll be receiving. But you have to judge their value on a lifetime, not the first few years of a career. Apprenticeships aren’t as rigorous as they used to be either. When I signed my indentures with the Jewish Chronicle, it was a serious pledge of employment and training. Modern day apprentices can be dispensed with much more easily.

I remember listening to a government minister explaining a new scheme to recruit graduates as social workers. “We want the brightest and the best,” he said. I wondered what differentiated “brightest” and “best”, and how he could be so sure that Russell Group graduates were either. The British exam system is designed more to identify privilege than innate talent. But the message was clear - there will always be ways for graduates to leapfrog the rest of the crowd.

Vocational training may well launch you into a great career. Looking at it from the outside, I haven’t suffered from the choice I made at 18. But a university education will open doors for the rest of your life. And if I had that choice again, I’d have opted for English at Goldsmith’s.

July 18, 2023 12:48

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