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‘I racked up £68k of student debt for a degree I don’t even use’

Nimo Mohamed, who did a degree in accounting and finance but retrained as a software engineer, and is pictured outside Lloyds Bank where she is doing a placement project
'I feel let down by the education system,' says Nimo Mohamed, who owns tens of thousands after completing an accounting and finance degree - Dale Cherry

For many teenagers, going to university is a £50,000 gamble. Taking on huge amounts of debt and deciding on a lifetime-defining career choice while still so young can lead to the wrong decisions.

This system has burdened some graduates with costly regret. Former prime minister Tony Blair set a target of getting half of young people to university, which was reached in 2019. But to some, that was a short-sighted goal.

Back then, going to university was far cheaper and did not leave graduates loaded with such astronomical amounts of debt, which averages around £50,000. Now it is increasingly important that young people consider their degrees – and even their choice to go at all – carefully. Some young people complain that there is an expectation to go to university, and little opportunity to find out about alternatives.

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Here, we meet three people who completed degrees that they regret – or which have very little to do with their day jobs.

‘I went to Durham – but wish I’d learnt a trade’

Adam Pollock pictured at his home in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. He regrets getting thousands of pounds into debt from student loans
Adam says his business and management degree course had little relevance to the real world - Charles McQuillan

Adam Pollock, 25, works in Belfast as the head of digital marketing at a non-profit organisation. He studied business and management at Durham University, a degree choice he regrets despite loving the social side of the university experience. While he only repays about £100 each month of his student loan, he bemoans the poor value for money his course offered, and believes it failed to prepare him for the world of work.

Pollock says: “The vast majority of modules had absolutely no relevance to business jobs at all. The majority of them were essay-based modules, which is very out of step with the actual working world.”

If Pollock could turn back time, he’d likely either choose a different degree subject or learn a trade. “Part of me wishes I’d done a subject I enjoyed, like English. If I was going to be unprepared for the working world anyway, I may as well spend three years learning about enjoyable things.

“Another part of me wishes that I could have learned a trade instead. As a society we are lacking in people who excel in traditional crafts – stonemasons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers – who leave a void behind which has led to much of the country being uglier, less sustainable, and less long-lasting than anything which came beforehand.

“These trades charge a premium nowadays as their services are so in demand, because many people who previously would have gone into these trades instead went to universities and got rather meaningless degrees.”

Pollock feels that for many schoolchildren, university is made to seem like the only real option to earn a decent living, while apprenticeships can be a better means to do so.

“We need far more apprenticeships. We’re constantly told growing up and in school that going to university is the best way to escape from a lower socio-economic status, when that doesn’t really hold true for many people and many degrees nowadays. There still seems to be a stigma attached to apprenticeships that puts them on a lower status to university degrees.”

‘I’m £68k in debt for my degree – it wasn’t worth the money at all’

Nimo Mohamed sitting outside her office building. She did a degree in accounting and finance, but has since retrained as a software engineer
Nimo says her colleagues who took the training route are more senior to her now – and don't have the debt she has - Dale Cherry

Nimo Mohamed, 24, has buyer’s remorse over her degree in accounting and finance. After graduating from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2022, she retrained as a software engineer at a 12-week “boot camp” run by recruitment company Bright Network.

“I don’t feel good about the amount of money I owe; it adds a bit of stress to life,” Mohamed says. “The education that I got wasn’t worth that much. I did lots of my degree during the Covid lockdowns, and most of the things we learnt were on PowerPoint sheets and Zoom calls. I didn’t get £68,000 of knowledge; everything I learnt I could have just taught myself. It wasn’t worth the money at all.”

Mohamed feels let down by the education system in not informing her that there were other options available, such as apprenticeships – or even the possibility of simply not going to university.

“In my current job there are people in higher positions than me who don’t have degrees. They did apprenticeships, and now they’re senior engineers. They earn a lot more, they know a lot more, and they’re roughly my age. They have years more experience than I do, and I have nearly £70,000 worth of debt, but I’m nowhere near where they are.

“It’s not just that I did the wrong subject at university – somebody should have told me that experience can be worth more than a degree. I wish I’d done an apprenticeship in tech.”

Mohamed grew up in a single-parent household, and she often had to work multiple jobs while studying. An apprenticeship could have offered her the skills she wanted while providing her with an income.

“It would have been good to have been learning and earning at the same time. While I was studying, I worked at Tesco and took on a second job during the holidays working in a factory. I’ve worked since I was 16; juggling work and studying was tough at times, but I had to do it. If I could’ve done all that in one by doing an apprenticeship, it would have been better.”

Mohamed is now working on a project for Lloyds Bank with three other Bright Network graduates. “It’s exciting, scary, nerve-wracking… it’s an adventure. I feel like this is where life was supposed to go,” she says.

‘I learnt more in practice than I have from a course’

Interior designer Noor Charchafchi at her home in south west London
Noor says a degree-level education can be of value but it's not for everyone and should not essential - Clara Molden

Noor Charchafchi, 43, doesn’t have any regrets about doing a degree in law but she is an enormous advocate for young people doing apprenticeships. She is the director and founder of Celine Interior Design; previously she worked as an aviation finance lawyer, but handed in her notice to become an interior designer.

“I’m a massive supporter of education: it teaches you a good work ethic, communication, and how to work in a team,” she says. “But I don’t think everybody has to do a degree. If you don’t have the capacity to do one, it doesn’t matter. I learnt more in practice – whether that’s law or design – than I would have ever learnt on any course.

“The only way young people will ever learn to do any job is by doing an apprenticeship. I’ve never employed a student out of university who knew how to do the job I needed them to do – not one – though I still think it’s important [to have that level of education].

“If you can get an apprenticeship, just do it. It’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Does Charchafchi think that aspiring young lawyers are better off doing a law apprenticeship than a degree? “Massively, yes. University degrees today should look more like apprenticeships. Kids should be taught how to do a job, and that’s not happening in our universities. It’s a heartbreaking failure of the education system.”