Grant Woodward: Does it really still pay to have a university degree?

The characters in sitcom Fresh Meat spent most of their time at university getting drunk. And many real-life students aren't that different.
The characters in sitcom Fresh Meat spent most of their time at university getting drunk. And many real-life students aren't that different.
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These days youngsters should think long and hard about what education would work best for them.

It’s that time of year again when I thank my lucky stars I no longer live in Headingley.

Yes, it’s Freshers’ Week, when a new crop of students cascade into the city, hellbent on making friends with people it will take them a fortnight to realise they don’t actually like, joining societies they’ll never visit and consuming more cheap booze than their little livers quite know what to do with.

Mercifully, moving out of student central means I don’t now go to bed expecting to be woken by some berk from Berkamsted blaring out dance music at 3am while simultaneously weeing out of his window.

I’m not being crude for the sake of it. I had the misfortune to witness this very spectacle one sleep-deprived night some years ago. That and the all-night party over the road a few days later were pretty much the straws that broke this camel’s back.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun during my own university days, or enjoy nights when I drank far more than was strictly good for me.

And it’s important to say that there are oodles of students coming to the city who won’t spend the next three years being a proverbial pain in the posterior to their neighbours.

But while Leeds is home to some excellent universities (and the city’s businesses would weep at the thought of losing the millions of pounds these youngsters spend here each and every year), I’m not sure I’ll be doing what my own parents did when they drummed it into my sister and I that we should be the first in our family to go to university.

Because not only is the cost of a degree getting more expensive by the day, the more people who have one, the less it’s actually worth.

Recent research has well and truly debunked the theory that those who go on to uni earn a huge amount more than those who don’t.

This graduate earnings premium was once touted as being worth £400,000 over the course of someone’s working life.

In fact, a new study by the Intergenerational Foundation lobby group says it’s more like £100,000 – or £2,222 over 45 years of work – and that’s pretty much wiped out once National Insurance and income tax are taken into account.

The main trouble with this myth about sky high graduate earning power is that it’s trotted out to justify hikes in tuition fees which already saddle leavers with typical debts of £44,000.

Their average debt is higher than their peers in any other English-speaking country, including the United States.

In other words, the current system stands accused of fuelling a self-perpetuating debt-generating machine which short-changes young people.

Factor in the pressure of knowing that once you leave (with all that debt hanging over you) there will be scores of graduates just like you all looking for work in a crowded jobs market and you have to feel a smidgen of sympathy.

It’s why I’ll tell my children to take a close look at University Technical Colleges instead. These Government-funded academies provide 14 to 19-year-olds with an education that includes the usual core subjects but also focuses on skills that will actually make them employable.

The aim is to develop the next generation of Britain’s creatives, engineers, designers, technicians and scientists – to fill the gaps that desperately need plugging.

For instance, by 2020 the UK will need an extra 1.3m new science, technology and engineering professionals. And UTCs are the perfect place to develop them.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t go to university. But I’ll want my own children to think long and hard about whether they really need to spend three years clocking up a small fortune in debt while exercising their drinking arm.

And if they do end up going to uni, I promise to come and collect them myself if they ever make a nuisance of themselves in the way my former neighbours from hell in Headingley did.

Brotherly love, Yorkshire style

My kids have become quite the Brownlee Brother fans in recent times. It started with us taking them to the ITU World Triathlon in Leeds back in June.

We stood on Street Lane and our two waved their homemade banners as Al and Jonny sped by on their bikes.

Then we headed home and watched the finish of the race on TV while they cheered them on.

A few weeks ago they were both glued to the Olympic race which saw the lads from Bramhope pick up gold and silver.

But if all that success taught them about the hard work and supreme effort that’s required to achieve greatness, this week they learned something even more important from the Brownlee boys.

The footage of Alistair sacrificing victory in the last World Triathlon Series race of the season to help his stricken sibling was brotherly love, Yorkshire-style.

Having hauled Jonny to the finish line in a bid to help him snatch the overall title he then dispelled any fears he was going all soppy on us by unceremoniously chucking him over it, then calling him a “flippin’ idiot”.

But this act of sportsmanship (Alistair said he’d have helped any fellow competitor in trouble) showed our children that sport isn’t just about winning or making footballer-style mounds of cash, it’s also about camaraderie and fair play.

Just a shame the Spaniards spoiled it by trying to get Jonny disqualified, even though their man still lifted the title.

If Brangelina can’t make it, what hope is there for the rest of us?

So let’s see. Squillions of quid in the bank. Six adorable kids. Luxury homes around the world. An other half who’s topped countless lists of the planet’s most desirable people.

Yep, it really did look as if Brad and Angelina had it all. They even produced their own wine for Pete’s sake. I mean, what more could you ask for?

But in what has been a grim year for celebrity deaths, the beautiful double-headed Hollywood monster that was Brangelina has finally bitten the dust.

In the wake of the news, gossip columnists queued up to tell us they’d been expecting this for a while. Apparently the pair had recently been photographed having a row.

All I’d say to that is it’s a bloody good job these people have never seen me and my wife in Ikea.

But what I’m really thinking this week is that if Brad and Ange can’t make it with all the wonderful things they had going for them, then what kind of earthly hope is there for the rest of us?