A piece published on The Times's website this Monday made a bold statement about the benefits of attending university in 2016 - and beyond.

‘University does not pay off for most graduates’ shrieked the headline, and the overall tone seemed to be written to strike fear into the heart of anyone thinking that a degree would equal a better-paid job.

Despite mums, dads and grandparents urging younger people to get a degree to boost their earning potential, a report carried out by think tank Intergenerational Foundation (IF) suggested that a degree will only earn graduates an extra £100k throughout their working lifetime – not the £400k ministers have told them they can expect.

Of course, it’s a different story for some – with graduates from elite universities and those who pursue careers in the ‘professions’ (doctors, dentists, lawyers). But what of the Average Graduate Joe who isn’t quite sure what they want from life, and settles for a degree in Philosophy from London Met?

The article made for uncomfortable reading, and urged anyone debating their future to think long and hard about their decision. Is university still worth the expense? Will it help you get a job that you’ll love? Many students will graduate with debts of up to £53k – and if they’re not in one of the top-earning jobs, that means that their degree will only earn them an extra £2,200 a year over non-graduates. Most of which is wiped out by tax and national insurance. So, is it worth the three-year slog?

The Lifehouse Co.’s CEO, Neil Darke, suggests that the article’s ‘scaremongering’ tone is disappointing. "Yes, the decision to go to university these days is a more complex one. But, be very clear, a ‘graduate premium’ still exists, as the data in the IF report itself says. However, it is now more of a excellent-graduate-from-the-right-university-with-a-highly-employable-degree premium."

"It used to be black-and-white. Back in the 1980s, if you were a university graduate you were almost certain to earn a substantial ‘graduate premium’ as only 13% of young people went to university. Nowadays, with almost four times the number going to university, clearly, they can’t all earn the same graduate premium. And, of course, now you have to pay handsomely to go.

"However, I do believe aspiring to better yourself and get a degree is still worthwhile, but it’s far from the only option, and like any big financial commitment, you should hard about it and do your homework. Don’t sleepwalk into a £50k debt – think long and hard about whether you truly want to do it, what you want to do, where you want to go and then carefully plan it out. Look at the post-graduate employment track record of your course and university. In summary, make sure your qualification is well-worth your time and money."

Workplace apprenticeships

"These are an increasingly popular of getting a recognised qualification while working within a big company, and ensuring that you’re debt-free at the end. There’s a growing trend of blue-chip employers such as KPMG, Glaxo Smith-Kline, Accenture and Jaguar recruiting some of the brightest school-leavers for professional service and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) apprenticeships. These young people are actively choosing work over university and very often they’ll end up with a degree – many of the firms partner with local universities – so the apprentices learn while they earn.

"Of course, there is a downside. You have to decide early on which discipline you want to work in – so you don’t have the luxury of doing a ‘generic’ degree for three years, and deciding what you want to do afterwards. However, if you’re focused, and you know which path you want to take, it’s another option."

Work experience and industrial placements

"Numerous studies have highlighted the decline in the number of students who have genuine work experience. This is not a good thing. Part-time jobs when you are at school or university, holiday and summer jobs – don’t be fussy – these all signal work ethic, grit and good time management to graduate employers.

"Industrial placements are another great way to get work experience. Even though I did a non-vocational subject (maths), I did a year’s industrial placement whilst I was at the University of Bath, a university which actively encourages its students to do placements. You can even choose to work abroad, if you’d like to. An industrial placement gives you practical experience and you learn skills that will help you thrive in the workplace, all attractive qualities for prospective employers."

Use your contacts to find relevant work experience

"Become very familiar with the Careers Department, chat to lecturers and mentors within your department, use your network and there are numerous online services that can help you source these opportunities. Email employers and ask if there are any opportunities to work part time, or to gain work experience. Employers love to see that you’ve been willing to take the initiative and explore the potential to get a job within your field before you’ve even graduated."

Determined to make your qualification work for you? Here’s a few things to remember:

  • If you know what you want from your career, consider a workplace apprenticeship. It’ll take longer to earn your qualification, but you’ll gain great experience, and veto any student debt.

  • If you decide to go to university, it’s a big financial commitment, so do your research.

  • Plan ahead. Think about your employability and choose courses or universities that have good graduate employment rates and encourage industrial placements.

  • Get any work experience you can – part-time jobs, summer jobs, internships – and remember, it’s more about the skills you learn rather than the jobs you’ve done.

  • Don’t expect employers to come looking for you – the onus is on you to find them!

  • Stand tall. Your qualifications provide you an opportunity not afforded to all. But you have a responsibility to make the best of it!