from left: Zoe Harris, Natally Hance

What's The Alternative?

7th June 2013

As A-level exams get under way, and pupils across the country are chewing their pencils, wondering if they can achieve the results they need, Alex Gray talks to four local young people about their plans for the future and their thoughts on tuition fees...

If I were an A-level student today, with plans to head off to university, I might have cause to feel gloomy. Some of the headlines in the broadsheets over the last few months have made for painful reading: Graduate job opportunities shrink amid economic uncertainty… Graduates face jobs crunch: One in six 18-to-24-year-olds are seeking work while 50% of employers have suspended recruitment… Slump in graduate jobs market hits six-in-10 ex-students… Even the Daily Mail weighed in with the news that Graduates lack the skills needed in the workplace. Meanwhile, the Office of National Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for new graduates stood at 18.9 per cent at the end of 2011, much higher than the rates for those who graduated two to four years previously and, alarmingly, much higher than the rate of general unemployment in the UK.

Add to the mix the tuition fees, which have rocketed from £1,000 a year a decade ago to a cap of £9,000 now, and I might be forgiven for thinking that I would leave university not only saddled with almost £30,000 of debt (and that's without even counting living costs) – but with no job at the end of it…

…which could be why UCAS, the organisation responsible for managing applications for higher education courses in the UK, reported that by September of 2012, there were 54,000 fewer applications from prospective students. Commenting on the report, the UCAS Chief Executive, Mary Curnock Cook, said: “The headline numbers in this report signal the challenging environment for recruitment in 2012 for some parts of UK higher education. Even in their revised figures for January, they admit that rates fell below trend in 2012. So if university no longer looks like such a rosy prospect, what's the alternative?”

Zoe Harris is a bright, engaging 17-year-old from Chorleywood with a passion for art, fashion and photography. Currently coming to the end of her time at Rickmansworth’s Royal Masonic School for Girls, Zoe found while going through the UCAS process that not a single course matched her various interests, certainly “not enough to commit three years and £30,000 to”, she jokes. Zoe dismissed the one course that did pique her interest – Marine Photography – after realising that there was unlikely to be a job at the end of it. “The chance of getting on to the course was so slim that I didn't want to get my hopes up,” she explains. “And I actually thought it would be better to take a few years out to travel and build up a photographic portfolio and then take my chances in the job market.”

Nervous about broaching the subject with her parents – until then everyone had assumed that Zoe would naturally be going to university – she found that they were extremely supportive. “I was worried my dad wouldn't be at first, but he was the one saying you know, you don't need to go, maybe uni isn't for you. That's what gave me the courage to think ‘okay, I won't go’. I think that getting more life experience, rather than doing a course, is the better option for me.” On top of which, says Zoe, fees are now 'ridiculous': “I just didn't want my parents to have that stress that they paid all this money and what if I didn't get a job after uni? I've still got to pay all that money back. I think you don't have to pay it back until you've got a stable job but even then, that's the time when you're going to be wanting to buy a house but instead you'll be paying off uni fees.”

Tomi Greene

Tomi Greene, also 17 and from Rickmansworth, says that going to university is very much in his ‘psyche’ and that of his friends. Yet Tomi, whose father is a Cambridge graduate, isn't applying either. He had had Durham or Bristol in his sights after leaving Watford Grammar School for Boys, but after personally disappointing (although entirely respectable) AS exam results, he started to have second thoughts. “I've been in education for fifteen years now, and actually I want to do something else,” he says. Tomi will be moving to Hong Kong to work in a co-educational boarding school teaching sports, music and drama. “It's a daunting prospect, but my parents encouraged me, saying I was an idiot not to take up this fantastic opportunity. Uni is always going to be there, but this isn't.”

Tomi describes himself as “horrendously disappointed” at the rise in university fees, and says that it adds more pressure to students to make sure they choose the right course: “If you drop out not only are you letting yourself down, you're letting your parents down because of the tuition fees – it's not just time that you've wasted.”

Natally Hance, also from Rickmansworth and an ex-Royal Masonic pupil, is now 21 and has a young son. She was always clear about not going to university. She admits that the expectation that she would go into higher education was huge, but she had hated being at school, hated the routine.

“When I told my teachers I was going to college to do beauty therapy with the hope of launching my own business, they were aghast,” she says.

Natally really wanted to get straight out into the world of work and thinks that, actually, attitudes are changing now: “Employers are saying okay, this person's got A* in all their exams, but what experience have they got? University isn't for everybody, and I think less and less people are going to go.”

Streatham teenager Hattie Wrixon featured prominently in various national newspapers last year because, like our local students, she had decided not to go to university – and was so frustrated at the lack of information on the options available to her that she set up an online careers development resource (www.unisnotforme.com) providing independent advice for young people who are considering alternatives to the traditional academic route. “I always wanted to go to university – all my family have gone – and it wasn't until I was doing my A levels, and tuition fees went up, that I realised it actually wasn't the best option for me,” she explains. “Realistically, £9,000 for a year was ridiculous. I hadn't picked a course yet, and I didn't want to just go to an okay uni and pay that much money. After thinking about it for quite some time, I decided not to go. With the website I'm really interested in getting people to realise that getting a job is not just about getting really good grades. Quite a lot of people are quite scared, people at my old school are now in the position of choosing whether to go and are quite frightened of what their parents will say if they decide not to. Hopefully in a couple of years, things will change anyway, because the higher fees will prompt people to think harder about it. I'm really glad I didn't go, I'm on a marketing apprenticeship now with two graduates, and we're all doing exactly the same job.”

Maddie Hance

While Zoe prepares to catch a flight to Borneo in a few month's time, Tomi starts thinking about what life will be like as a teacher in Hong Kong, and Natally gets her business off the ground (while also raising her young family), Maddie Hance, Natally’s younger sister, who has always been in two minds about whether to go on to higher education is bucking their trend – and will soon be the first in her family to head off to university. Having studied Photography at school she discovered that she had a real passion for it, enough to outweigh any cons about going. “In photography I can work anywhere,” she explains, “in film, advertising, marketing…and although my course is just one subject it's a very broad one. By doing it at degree level I gain in-depth learning of the subject, and I think that it will help my chances of getting a job.”

The road map of career, education and employment choices at 18 and beyond is complex; only time will tell which of our teenagers has chosen the best route…

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