With steep tuition fees, a shrinking job market for professionals and large corporations taking on school leavers, just what is the point of university? 

As little as five years ago, the choice facing teenagers at leading schools was where to go to university. The class of 2011, the last university intake year before tuition fees were raised to £9,000 a year, faced an inexplicable choice: go to university now, while it’s affordable, or embrace the gap year dream – and pay for it.

Now, the choice that upper sixth formers must make now is whether university is worth it or not. With fees at an all-time high, and more available options for education post-18 than ever before, the goalposts have changed. Employers are feeling it too. In January, publishers Penguin Randomhouse became the latest corporation to discount the degree classification from its application process. This followed City firm Ernst & Young’s decision last August to do the same, and an earlier move by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to ditch A-Level results when recruiting graduates.

To keep up, careers advice at school has had to diversify – even if progress is slow. Research last year found that an overwhelming percentage of teachers would “rarely or never advise a pupil to apply for an apprenticeship if they had grades required for university entry”.

Despite the government’s attempts to push wide-ranging apprenticeships schemes, university is still the default position for many. While costs have gone up, in 2014, more 18 year olds from the poorest backgrounds went to university than ever before.

It is high time private schools considered a broader educational diet

Andrew Fleck, headmaster of Sedbergh School in Cumbria, believes that university is very much of value. There are four main reasons for this, he says. Firstly, because it is “a place of late adolescence maturation, and this is closely linked to independence.” It also “offers a breadth of experience and the opportunities to meet new people, and is important as a place of academic study. Finally, he says, university is somewhere that should, in theory, prepare one for the workplace.”

But he has also made a public call for independent schools to do more in the way of offering vocational training to pupils.  “I have never met anyone who disagrees that the country needs more high-quality vocational education but it appears that the contribution of HMC schools is particularly poor in this regard, with only 44 [out of 276] schools recorded as offering non-A-Level vocational programmes. “We know that our pupils are set to enter a competitive global labour market, but how many of us have really explored what that means?

“Our schools have successfully directed pupils into comfortable middle-class professions accessed through Russell Group universities, but these opportunities are shrinking, and with further stimulus from the rising cost of university education, we know that increasing numbers of pupils will bypass university and enter the labour market direct from school.

“If they are to do so successfully, we must prepare them for it. It is high time we considered a broader educational diet.”

Chris King, headmaster of Leicester Grammar School, and chairman of the HMC, criticised the standard of modern university teaching in an interview with The Times last year. Now, he says, when sixth formers tell him that they want to go to university, but they don’t know what they want to do, alarm bells ring. “I can detect the risk that they will potentially pass from school to university with no real attachment to the subject they are about to study in depth.”

But it isn’t for everyone. “One of my top pupils has just won a training placement at PwC,” Fleck says. “She’s done fantastically well.” More than just apprenticeships, the opportunity to venture straight into the workplace is an option at 18, if you’re competitive enough to take it on.

Other businesses offer similar options, and some such schemes are highly paid. The most competitive can pay up to £25,000 for a young person to work and study, although most of the country’s biggest brands start apprentices on a figure of about £15,000.

I’m glad I dropped out of university, I only went because it was expected of me

In some cases, not going to university pays off in other ways too. Archie Hewlett founded his footwear company Duke & Dexter a year after leaving Radley College. Despite having achieved highly at A-Level and been offered a place at Durham University, he took up on his own. He explains that at school, he never contemplated doing anything other than going to university, yet when he left, the business world was more tempting than undergraduate life.

The feeling that going to university was simply the done thing is echoed by many of those in their early 20s nationwide. For those for whom the question was not ‘will you go to university?’ but ‘where?’ it is a sticking point. 23-year-old Eleanor Muffitt tried university twice, before deciding it wasn’t it wasn’t right for her. “I only went to university because it was expected of me. I never made a conscious decision to go – it just seemed so obvious to me that this is what I had to do,” she explains. “I’m glad I dropped out. I was doing a course that I didn’t enjoy.” Leaving university, she took a year out to travel, and consider her options, before enrolling on an apprenticeship at the Daily Telegraph.

Paul Fairclough, head of sixth form at Sedbergh, agrees that going to university “was certainly” the done thing for many students. “The costs involved are now giving more serious consideration to issues of employability after graduation,” he says. “We are seeing an increasing number of pupils enrolling on what more ‘vocational’ courses – events, agricultural and business management.”

For those that do choose to go to university, it’s about making strategic decisions. One City worker, who graduated in 2014, explains: “I wanted to work in London ultimately, so I went to university there. My proximity to the job market and the opportunities there for work experience made going to university worthwhile. It served a dual purpose.”

While for some sixth formers, all it might take is some canny decision-making, there is a gap that university admissions have failed to plug. This is the relationship between school and the soft skills that come from it, and those necessary for future employment. “Random House say they are keen to accept people with a range of skills, but admissions tutors focus on academics,” Fleck says. “Different universities have said that they don’t even read the personal statement. This is a problem. Employers are looking for academic achievement and a wide range of skills. It would be sensible if that tracked all the way through from school, but it just doesn’t.”

The tide is turning on the straightforward and immediate pathway to university. Just how far still remains to be seen.