Is university the right path for your child?
University is a good option for many school leavers but it’s not right for everyone. Would it suit your child?
Would your child prefer academic freedom or being able to apply what they learn?
For some careers it’s essential to go to university before looking for a job. However, for others there are alternative routes in that include studying while in employment, with the employer paying for the course fees. A few of these even offer the chance to work towards a degree part time, so they are well worth checking out.
- Read up on what are school leaver programmes, apprenticeships and sponsored degrees?
- See our advice on different career areas.
Depending on your child, it might be more motivating to combine study with working on actual projects in the relevant industry. However, the flip side is that the course will be chosen by the employer, so your child will have much less say in what they study.
Is your child self-motivated? And happy to study alone?
To succeed at university, your child needs to be self-motivated about study.
Universities typically expect students to spend around 35 to 45 hours per week in total studying. For many subjects there is less contact time than at school, which means that a higher percentage of their time should be spent in private study. This is particularly the case with arts and social science subjects: on some courses a typical week involves only six or eight hours of teaching time. Science subjects tend to have more contact hours (20 hours a week is a typical figure).
University students also tend to be much less closely monitored than school pupils – on many courses it’s possible to slack off for weeks or even months at a time without anyone commenting on it. As an example, an English degree will typically consist of lectures (listening to a talk in groups of around 20 to 100) and seminars or tutorials (interactive sessions in groups of up to about 20). Attendance at seminars or tutorials is typically monitored, and students may be asked to explain themselves if they miss multiple sessions. Attendance at lectures often isn’t monitored.
So a key consideration is whether your child will be motivated enough to crack on by themselves – and to keep going month after month.
Does your child want to explore different careers or passions?
A full-time university degree has its advantages if your child is unsure of his or her career direction and wants the opportunity to explore different potential paths through work experience placements and extracurricular activities. However, again, this requires self-motivation and organisation on their part.
- Take a look at our advice on whether a school leaver programme will make you specialise in a particular career too early.
UK universities don’t organise work experience on their students’ behalf – though they might have relevant contacts, and the careers service is very likely to be able to read through and advise on your child’s applications, if they ask in good time. Many universities have clubs, societies and positions of responsibility that allow students to get experience that relates to the world of work, whether it’s being a student journalist for the university radio station or webmaster for the archery club. But getting the most out of these – and sometimes getting elected into a role in the first place – does often require considerable commitment and enthusiasm. Nothing will be handed to your child on a plate!
For some students a key draw of doing a full-time degree is being able to participate in university-level sport, theatre, music or politics. These are very worthwhile experiences and will look good on your child’s CV (provided of course that they get into their desired teams/shows etc), regardless of whether or not they want to pursue a career in that area. However, your child will still need motivation for their degree subject too!
Are university tuition fees a concern?
Don’t rule out university study on the basis of finance. There are loans available to cover tuition fees and help towards the cost of living. Students don't have to start paying these back until they have graduated and are earning at least £21,000.
- See our article on university tuition fees and funding for more information.
- You might also want to consider whether a degree is a good long-term financial investment. Read our advice on whether you'll be better off financially if you go to university or join a school leaver programme at 18.
Be warned though that there is no definitive yes/no answer – it will depend on the precise career choices your child makes.
University might be a good path for your child if…
- He or she wants a career that requires a degree and there aren’t relevant sponsored degree programmes.
- He or she wants to study a non-vocational subject in depth for its own sake.
- He or she wants the freedom to choose the course, modules and projects that best match his or her interests and aspirations.
- He or she wants the time and opportunity to explore different types of careers – and is motivated both to actually do this and to study hard.
University might not be a good path for your child if…
- He or she doesn’t have the motivation to study hard without close supervision.
- There isn’t a subject that would particularly inspire your child.
- He or she wouldn’t enjoy spending lots of time studying alone – especially if considering an arts or social science degree.
- He or she would like to get on with work that has an impact on a team or organisation or beyond, rather than just on his or her own grades.
- He or she only sees a degree as a means to an end, rather than being keen to study.
What if university isn’t right for my child?
Bear in mind that motivation is also extremely important if your child opts for a school leaver programme. Recruiters only want to hire candidates who are genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunity, and your child will then need to balance the demands of the job with part-time study.
If your child currently lacks motivation for this option too, consider a well planned gap year or a year working full time in a casual job. This could give them the time and experience to discover what does and doesn’t motivate them, whether they get inspired about a particular career through a voluntary placement or simply conclude that stacking shelves is boring and they want to pursue something more challenging.