University blues on the rise among young people

Nearly four in five UK students have considered dropping out of university. Why are they falling out of love with higher education?

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Helena Young
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It may be home to two of the world’s best universities, but research shows that the UK’s students are growing disaffected with higher education amid rising career regret.

Nearly four in five students have considered leaving university during their studies, according to a survey of 1,000 students by Generation Logistics that found 78% felt this way. Most blame low motivation for the change of heart, as businesses raise doubts that today’s graduates are prepared for the workforce.

Last September, the Student Loans Company (SLC) reported a 28% rise in the number of people who signed up for student loans but ended up dropping out of a course.

Below, we break down the data in detail to find the top reasons why today’s students are ditching the degree and looking elsewhere for a career break.

Higher education pressure

For decades, university leavers were viewed as the cream of the crop during recruitment. In job adverts, companies even took to including degree requirements and prioritising red-brick alumni. This is a practice that still persists today among traditional employers.

The result has been a myth handed down the generations that a degree is the only way to get a ‘good’ job in the UK. This misapprehension is putting pressure on 18 year olds to apply to university, rather than explore alternative career routes.

Indeed, more than one in ten young people surveyed by Generation Logistics claimed they only attended university after being pressured to do so by family members.

Secondary schools and colleges may also be to blame for the UK’s university tunnel vision. The data shows that 24% of young people felt that progressing onto higher education after school was the only choice available to them.

This could also explain why many youngsters don’t enjoy their time at university – it wasn’t their choice to be there. According to the survey, 31% of those who had considered dropping out attributed their indecision to not enjoying their course, while 22% said it was not the right path for their personal ambitions.

Career FOMO

The Generation Logistics research also found that 36% of students applied to university out of a concern it would be harder to get a job without a bachelor’s degree as a minimum.

This suggests that many of today’s youth are suffering from career FOMO. They fear missing out on a well-paid entry-level position, to the point that the majority complete a course in a field they’re not sure they want to work in just to get a foot in the academic door.

Finding a meaningful job is a key motivation for uni attendance. But, such is the faith in higher education that plenty of students apply to university without knowing what industry they want to enter.

55% of all young people surveyed by Generation Logistics said they were not even certain of what career they wanted before starting their studies.

Financial pressure

Degree regret cannot be discussed without the elephant in the room: money. Mounting student loan costs, alongside the rising cost of living, have made studying full-time unaffordable for many learners.

Paying off this debt post-degree is also a tall order. Today’s graduates can quickly end up disappointed with the average salary for an entry-level role, which can barely cover the cost of rent and other everyday living costs.

Even the government has weighed in. Last year, Rishi Sunak announced a possible cap on the number of students who study “rip-off” degrees leaving undergraduates short-changed.

It’s not surprising that 32% of respondents told Generation Logistics they were considering dropping out of university due to a lack of money.

What can young people do instead of getting a degree?

There are plenty of career-focused paths for 18-year-olds to take instead of university, including traineeships and certifications that can funnel students directly into a career.

Bethany Windsor, Programme Director at Generation Logistics, comments: “There are many sectors that offer fantastic opportunities for successful careers, whether joining straight out of school or job hunting after further education.”

The most popular of these choices is apprenticeships, where on-the-job training is combined with studying. Advanced qualifications are equal to bachelor degrees, and the apprentice minimum wage is set to rise this year, boosting average income.

“With many young people concerned about the prospect of taking on debts longer term, it’s easy to see why the opportunity to head into the workforce and earn a living is appealing,” says Windsor.

Employers will welcome the tide change. Many are tired of graduate demands for higher wages, and advertising for fewer entry-level roles as pay expectations surpass budgets.

Baby business owners

Another option is for teenagers to skip the boss altogether and launch their own business after leaving school. Companies House data reveals a surge in the number of student-led businesses registered in 2022; a year-on-year increase of 400%.

The majority of these begin as humble side hustles. Savvy juniors use dropshipping platforms to flog a few hundred items per week for some spare pocket money.

However, according to research by Connectd, many go on to become full-fledged businesses as young people take steps to turn their hobbies and passions into a second job.

Connectd’s research found that 92% of startups were shown to have been founded by Gen Z entrepreneurs (those aged 16-24 years old) as a side gig, before transitioning into their main income.

The university blues might be on the rise amongst the current student body. But more young entrepreneurs starting their own companies is a positive sign that the next generation is choosing the career path that is right for them; not the one society dictates.

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Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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