Higher Education: why bother?

Higher Education: why bother? is the Tateish title of my annual assembly on what is the next stage for almost all our students. There are some new themes to previous ones, three really: money, duration and abroad.

The money thing is bound to change the way that many students and families see higher education. Whether parents opt to pay for their children’s university education, seeing it, as many of ours will, as a continuation of the cost of education, or whether, as will be so in most cases, it is handled through a combination of debt, parental support and paid work in both the holidays and term-time, it cannot but be viewed differently when you know that your university education (even a mere 3 years)  is costing you £27,000 in fees and above £30,000 in living expenses. Thinking now annually and putting yourself in London and the annual total costs will be above £23,000 p.a. Make that a four year course and you are up to around £95K; add in the cost of lost earnings from paid work you might have had if you gone into a job straight off (say £10K a year) and you are up to £135K for the whole shebang. Paying for things makes people more demanding and UK universities are adjusting slowly to the environment that universities in the USA and independent schools have long inhabited where value for money matters. Watch this space on contact time.

Duration: I suspect I will have mystified some and annoyed some when, having talked about the cost, I then recommended that people do four years at university where possible – or at least that they are not fearful of doing four years. It is partly because of the abroad factor, but it is also because in what is going to be a very long working life, university should offer a brilliant opportunity to study something that you are really passionate about, whether that is something such as medicine or engineering that will be the basis for your vocation or something like philosophy, maths, history or Spanish that you just love. Three years  – really 2 ¾ is a very short time. That extra 33% makes a big difference to what you can do. If you choose languages, many science-based courses or go to Scotland or the USA then you will probably be on four years anyway.

Which takes us abroad. Over the past five years just short of 4% of our students have gone abroad for university. When we look back in five years time, it will be at least 10%.  The fee hike has closed the gap between UK and US universities and put UK and Canadian universities on the same level. Europe beckons. If, as is the case with many 17 year olds, you do not know what you want to do a degree in, then a US university is a very sensible choice: keep it broad initially and decide what you want to major in as you progress. With the great majority of the top 40 universities in the world in the USA, there is huge choice. There are just as compelling reasons for spending one year (usually your third) abroad if you go to a UK university – and after all we have 6 of the top 40 universities in the world (Times HE Survey), 5 of which are within 2 ½  hours’ travel of here.   Have a look at thirdyearabroad.com for the range of ways you can do this, often tying in with learning a new language or taking one you have studied at school  to fluency. The flexibility of mind and cultural understanding that time in a relatively alien environment gives you may well be one of the distinguishing features that helps you get the job that will allow you to make light of that debt – or at least have had such an life-enhancing, fulfilling and educationally enriching time to look back with a sagely philosophical view and think it really was all worth it.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.