The decisions that you make at 18 will probably be among the most momentous of your lifetime. And when you’ve completed your A-levels, the really big decision is whether to go to university or to get a job.

There’s nothing new in this debate – school leavers have been talking about it for generations. But changes to the way that university tuition is funded plus huge shifts in Britain’s occupational patterns mean that the answer is nowhere near as straightforward as it used to be.Go to university or get a job?

The benefits of higher education

Carrying on with study once you reach 18 has never been more popular with more than 415,000 students accepted onto degree courses by Britain’s universities and colleges last year.

Holding a degree continues to offer the prospect of higher rates of pay than for those who never go to university. Figures from jobs website Adzuna, which analysed more than 1,000,000 vacancies in 2015, found that those with a degree looking for work were likely to earn up to £12,000 a year more than those without a university education.  That adds up to £500,000 over the average working life so the difference is substantial.

What are the top degrees in terms of salary?

Figures from 2015 show that in their average salaries for graduates are £44,851 with a civil engineering degree, £42,837 with an engineering degree, £41,950 with a degree in computer science, £39,106 in mechanical engineering and £39,019 with a maths degree.

What about other degrees?

Britain’s university course have exploded in recent years with many more institutions now offering courses in virtually every subject from hair dressing to studies of popular music in the 1970s. Whether any of these newer degrees are worth pursuing if it’s a higher salary at the end of it that you are after is open to question. We’ve all heard countless tales of highly indebted graduates unable to get the work they’ve qualified for stacking shelves at Tesco.

As a result of all these newer courses and the thousands of students enrolling on them, it is estimated that only one in two university graduates will get a job which requires their qualification within a year or leaving college.

Which are the worst universities?

A fifth of students are out of work six months after graduating from some British universities with the prospect of finding a job varying widely between different colleges.  Shockingly, 14 universities have unemployment rates above 15 per cent.

Those with the worst unemployment records are London South Bank (22.6%), the University of East London (20.6%) and the University of Bolton (18.9%). The national average is just 9.2 per cent.

Should I just go and get a job?

If your A-level results don’t automatically qualify you for the degree course of your choice, then the answer to this may well be ‘yes’. On top of student tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, university means that you’ll have to find a way of funding your living expenses and all the nightlife and entertainment which many students crave.

And the prospects for jobs after university are not that much better than those who straight from A-levels into work. Just one in five of the top 30 fastest-growing occupations between now and 2020 will require a degree or other post-graduate qualification (nursing, higher education teachers, primary school teachers, accountants and medical doctors). Meanwhile 10 out of the top 30 occupations will not require any qualifications at all.

Economic analysts predict that the top 10 fastest-growing occupations between now and the end of this decade will be retail sales staff; food preparation workers; customer service reps; labourers and freight, stock, and material movers; lorry and van drivers; and various healthcare workers engaged in elderly care.

Meanwhile there are plenty of high-paying jobs that also don’t require a degree. Two of the highest paid are equities trader (average salary of £59,475) and air traffic controller (£41,011). The minimum requirement for both occupations is five GCSEs including English and maths.

At the end of the day, motivation is important whichever you choose

Survey after survey has found that those with positive attitudes who are motivated by providing a quality, professional service are more likely to succeed and make more money over a lifetime. This holds true whether an individual has been to university or left school at either 16 or 18.

Motivation is the number one factor when employers single out employees for advancement or pay rises. It is also the factor that marks out successful entrepreneurs.

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