By Daniel Hunter

Rising tuition fees and an uncertain jobs market are making higher education an increasingly serious business that is all about ensuring employability for the future, according to a survey by KPMG.

With tuition fees at English universities of up to £9,000 a year coming in this year, the perceived expense involved (despite the loan repayment arrangements in place and maintenance grants for those from low incomes) is driving changes in both student and parental attitudes which could have far-reaching implications for universities, employers and beyond.

The survey of 1,000 people (500 parents and 500 university students or school leavers), carried out by Populus for KPMG, revealed clearly that university is now viewed first and foremost as a means to a job: 68 percent of all respondents said that the most important thing about going to university is to get a qualification that leads to a well-paid job, dwarfing the second most popular response of getting a rounded education (12 percent). Only five percent of respondents said university was about ‘finding yourself’ and only two percent said it was about ‘having fun’.

The increase in tuition fees is a significant concern, particularly for parents, of whom over three quarters (77 percent) said that the increase would be a barrier for their child to go to university. Two thirds of current students said that the increase would have been a barrier to them attending, while 69 percent of school leavers planning to go to university feel that the fees could be a barrier.

Despite this, a strong majority still believe that going to university is as important as ever — 71 percent overall, and 78 percent of current school leavers.

“It’s clear that university is shifting from being the last step in an individual’s education to being the first decisive step in building a career," Oliver Tant, Head of Audit at KPMG, said.

"Whilst we can debate the pros and cons of this, the fact is that young people cannot afford to let the grass grow under their feet in today’s highly competitive environment. The competition, and the perceived costs involved, mean that a ‘return on investment’ is essential.

"This appears to be borne out in the recently released UCAS figures which showed a drop in applications overall and an emphasis on subjects that were perceived to offer better employment prospects, such as science, technology and maths.”

Great Expectations

In view of the investment now required, student and parent expectations of what universities should provide are rising. Seventy-eight percent of respondents believe that universities need to do more around the provision of careers services, and 69 percent said that they need to provide more timetabled careers advice.

Satisfaction levels amongst current university students in this area were mixed. Whilst 82 percent are satisfied with the academic teaching, only 48 percent are satisfied with the careers advice on offer. Amongst school leavers, the verdict on careers advice available at school was similarly a case of ‘could do better’: 55 percent are satisfied, while 20 percent said they are dissatisfied.

But expectations are not limited to universities themselves: respondents are also looking to employers to do more. Eighty-nine percent of respondents want to see companies offering more work experience, internships and apprenticeships, while eighty-two percent believe they should offer more sponsored degrees. Three quarters of respondents believe that companies need to put more school outreach and contact programmes in place.

Alternative Routes

Another effect of the rising costs is to encourage more people to look at other alternatives to going to university. Despite agreeing in theory that university is important, nevertheless some 40 percent of parents say that they encouraged or are encouraging their children to look at alternatives.

Parents — who have the biggest concerns about cost and employability — are also doing the most to investigate other possibilities. Two thirds of parents said that they are aware of other options such as sponsored degrees, work experience schemes and placements and have explored them at least briefly. This compares to only half of current university students and only 56 percent of current school leavers.

For some, financial concerns run deep. One in five parents (19 percent) admitted that “part of me hopes my child won’t get in or hadn’t got in to university because of the costs I could face.”

These concerns are not exclusive to parents, however. Two thirds of school leavers said they were concerned about the financial burden that going to university could place on their parents (19 percent said they would be funding it themselves) and 43 percent of current university students shared that concern (34 percent said they were funding their studies themselves).

“It is really important for young people and their parents to look at all the options available to them," Oliver Tant concludes.

"For many, a traditional route through university will remain the best course. But there are alternatives. Much has been done by Government and businesses to open up access to work experience including internships and apprenticeships, and more sponsored degrees and other schemes have sprung into being.

"From KPMG’s perspective, and that of most large employers, we want to choose the best people from the widest possible pool of talent. That’s why it is also crucial for employers to do more to develop programmes that offer credible, quality alternatives to school leavers for whom traditional degree study is not the best match.”

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