Should uni be an aspiration – or a ‘failsafe’?

In my last blog post, I mentioned that I’d got into a correspondence with teacher and author Matt Pinkett about whether young people – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – should aspire to university.

Matt suggested that perhaps young people should set their sights on the career they want and, if they can’t make serious progress towards it as they leave school, then they should consider university as a back-up – a ‘failsafe’, as he called it. 

After our previous discussions, he asked what I thought about this. This was my response (with a few edits to make it a blog more than a email to Matt)…


I don’t think I agree with the idea of university as a ‘failsafe’, although I’m still not sure I understand what you intend by the word. So I’m going to use Matt Pinkett’s line: ‘Aim for whatever you want to do, and if you don’t get it, well, at least you can go to university.’ That assumes that whatever you want to do won’t be best achieved by going to uni.

Obviously, university is not the best route for everything or for everyone, but for the vast majority of the best paid and most secure jobs, it is – if not a prerequisite – at least a head start.

The evidence is pretty clear: on average, uni helps everyone regardless of background, earn more in life and have other benefits such as health and happiness. It doesn’t eliminate the social advantages some were born with, but it does narrow the gap a bit.

For many students with disadvantage, higher education is not only transformative, it is almost the only thing that could ever have provided them with that transformation. On average, uni would be the right thing to do, if you are able and so minded. 

However, the sticking point there is ‘on average’. There are some people whom it won’t suit or for whom it further their aspirations. I never try to persuade people to go to uni, but I do try to outline the advantages – and disadvantages – so they can make an informed choice for themselves. You need to consider the individual. All guidance should be ‘Person first’. Or, more to the point, the person should consider their individual needs for themselves.

Rather than ‘aim for what you want to do’, I tend to think about ‘what do you want to be’.

For all of us, the answer to that is that we want to be happy. What happiness means to each of us and what will bring that happiness is different (and changes over time), but it might involve earning a lot (however much ‘a lot’ might be); it might be fame, security, a work:life balance, a family, power, a sense of doing something worthwhile etc. Each of us has a set of rewards we want in life and each career has the potential to deliver a different set of rewards. Finding a career that delivers the set you want is half the journey.

The other half is to be able to offer to that career the skillset that the employer will want. Just as each career offers a different reward set, each one demands a different skillset. If you don’t have the suitable skillset, the job might be a good match for you, but you’re not a good match for it.  

It’s worth unpacking what that skillset actually is. It’s not just skills, but broad ‘employability’. Employability comprises the following in no particular order:

(1) Skills:
(a) Hard skills, ie job specific skills, such as welding if you want to be a welder;
(b) Soft skills, ie transferable skills, such as communication, team work or numeracy, which are all useful in any job, albeit to varying degrees.

(2) Knowledge, some of which is specific to the job (eg. a surgeon’s understanding of anatomy), but much of it is broader (although to some extent, this comes up in (4) below)

(3) Character, which comprises attitude, behaviours and personality (and includes important traits like grit, resilience and a growth mindset, but also determination, politeness and amiability).  

(4) Social capital, or how society perceives your intrinsic value (based on class, age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, height, accent, use of the right fork, etc). This is the often unwelcome component of employability because it explains why Boris Johnson gets to be Prime Minister with a record of being repeatedly sacked when anyone from a disadvantaged background wouldn’t have been given a second chance. We cannot ignore social capital though, if only to recognise that, in order to make it matter less, you need to ensure you have all the other components in overwhelming supply. There are also things that one can do to build social capital – most importantly, the wider knowledge is key to this and not in a bad way.

Although these four components comprise ‘employability’, actually we are talking about something far broader than merely producing career fodder. We’re talking about creating rounded people: someone with a full complement of the four components is well equipped for making a life, not just a living.

What role does university play in any of this? It’s easy to see that disadvantaged students might start out with even more limited employability than more affluent students. University explicitly sets out to build knowledge and often hard skills too. It builds soft skills, although it tends to do this implicitly. It builds social capital through exposure to a wider cross-section of society, establishing networks and broadening horizons. It might also build character, but it is arguable whether it does so better than the ‘university of life’. In any case, research shows that disadvantaged students tend to have a lower propensity to take advantage of many of the character-building opportunities (such as extra-curricular activities) that uni might offer. This is often down to money, circumstances and habits formed in school.

When you look at it like this, you can see how uni builds employability into a quality some researchers have called ‘graduateness’, which is clearly prized by employers.

So, should uni be a failsafe or a first option? As I said, it has to be down to the individual and the gap between their skillset and that required by the career that might fulfil their reward set.

Critical to this is the questions of ‘if not uni, then what?’ Around 50% of school-leavers do not go to university. Most go into jobs (usually just ‘jobs’, rather than ‘careers’). A few go into apprenticeships, training or other non-higher education. Too many become NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). There’s not a sufficiently good other pathway (although there absolutely should be) and, unless there is a better option, university must surely look attractive to anyone with the grades and willingness to spend longer in education.

Degree apprenticeships are a decent option, but they are few and far between, fairly limited in the choice of jobs, and subject to many of the same prejudices against the disadvantaged that exist at any level of employment.

I haven’t touched here on the fact that uni is an expensive option. It is. And I believe the student/graduate’s contribution to the cost is disproportionate. (In fact, I have proposed an alternative system of funding.) That said, uni is pretty much free at the point of entry and you only pay when you earn a decent wage. In that sense, cost should not be seen as a barrier, although it might be seen as an impediment.


I agreed with Matt Pinkett that he could also publish my comments on his own blog which can be found at All Ears. I’m really grateful to him for what’s been – for me at least – an interesting discussion.

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