Some people think that university should be about theoretical study, trying out a range of new ways of thinking and fully enjoying the unique opportunities on offer at an academic institution to develop as a person before entering the working world. But in the face of increased student fees and a difficult economic climate, some students are choosing to focus their attention on equipping themselves for a particular career path. So what is university for, and how can you best use your time as an undergraduate?
We're not going to give you one answer - and we're not sure there is one - but we did ask six people with views on the matter for their thoughts.
Finance professional, writer and author of The Game - How the City Really Works
George Bernard Shaw once famously said that "youth is wasted on the young". I always felt that, academically speaking, university was wasted on me and many of my friends. University for me was about breaking out into the world and away from the shackles of childhood. It was about trying new things and meeting new people. I didn't know it at the time, but many of the friends and acquaintances I made there have been fixtures throughout my adult life. Some have even been of enormous help to me professionally. When I left Oxford in 1998, very few of us prioritised what happened next. We were far too caught up in the here and now.
Times have changed somewhat with the advent of tuition fees and the difficulty in securing employment. I sense this every time I visit universities to give talks. I understand the need to take life seriously, but please don't make university all about what happens next. There must be a balance. University isn't the real world and for that reason it must be cherished. You'll never again have so much freedom, so much time on your hands to dream. Life in the real world can be wonderful, but it can also be distinctly underwhelming.
Head of Labour Market and Pensions Policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)
With nearly six million people claiming an out of work benefit - one million of whom are under 24 - and the number of jobseekers far outstripping the number of jobs available, it's vital that young people view university as crucial preparation for their career. Around one in three jobs now needs graduate-level skills and the requirement for these qualifications is rising, while the number of lower-skilled jobs continues to fall.
Young people recognise this demand for higher skills, which is why undergraduate application numbers haven't fallen off in response to tuition fees as some feared - but it is clear from the data that students are now more closely linking course choices to future career options, with applications holding up strongest for degrees that pay greater dividends, such as physical sciences. At the same time, from an employer perspective, a growing number of companies are looking to hire young people at 18 and support them through their higher education.
Of course, for employers it's more than just about qualifications - business increasingly demands well-rounded people with the broad range of skills needed to thrive in the workplace. University is a great chance for young people to pick up these skills, for example through summer placements and sandwich years. Universities are responding to this challenge, and we have seen an increase in successful and innovative collaborations with business to design courses that develop employability skills, like self-management and team working, and provide careers advice and inspiration built into the student experience.
Columnist for The Gateway
This question's wording highlights exactly what is wrong with the British, traditionalist view of university: you can either study toward one historically approved career or "broaden the mind" which is usually a term served up Jeremy Clarkson-style with sarcastic quotation mark finger gestures and the implication that "drama studies" and recreational drugs will be the preferred choices of activity. But "broadening the mind" at university can be as simple as desiring a depth of knowledge in more than one discipline.
It's interesting that nobody doubts the fact that entrepreneurs' broad minds help them see gaps in markets and better ways of operating. There is no shortage of "broad minded" billionaires - Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology and computer science. The best firms hire these minds all the time. They advertise for grads with "entrepreneurial flair". They need people who can poach good concepts and great profits from elsewhere. If we are happy to admit that the most profitable firms and the most successful entrepreneurs require the ability to think broadly, the question should be: "Why do British universities not allow broader studies?" Why, in the US can you take economics with a minor in graphic design, but not (usually) in the UK? Allowing broad study programmes does not mean students will graduate with a Swiss Army knife of vague understandings. Instead it means having the guts to admit that opportunities might exist where nobody has yet seen them.
Deputy Head of Centre and Careers Adviser in the Careers, Employability and Enterprise Centre, Durham University
Universities are unique in the British education system in achieving both. Graduate employers increasingly expect evidence of an excellent education, which is inclusive of a broad skill set (including the ability to articulate/present ideas both qualitatively and quantitatively and be analytical and problem solving) that is pertinent to the work types they are hiring into, be it accountancy, law, policy making in government, working in the arts and culture sectors or indeed any career sector.
Students exemplify this through enquiry-based learning, which in a research-led university such as Durham encourages independence of learning and thought facilitated by some of the leading minds in the country. Complementing this are skills gained from student societies (e.g. managing budgets or communicating through debate), cultural understanding and exchange in an increasingly international population and through established initiatives such as the Erasmus scheme.
In a UK employment market that recognises and values the diversity of degree disciplines for many graduate positions, a university education outstandingly broadens the mind while offering a plethora of opportunities for skills development within and outside the curriculum. Ultimately this culminates in graduate employment and leads to an economically and socially successful society.
Broadening of the mind and career preparation need not be mutually exclusive benefits of a university education - in fact, in many ways the two are interlinked. While for career paths such as law and medicine, prior practical knowledge is vital, for many graduate roles in banking, finance and consulting, practical career preparation may not be a prerequisite. In fact, it's often the case that the less prepared one is, the better - given that some employers prefer to teach the necessary skills to fresh minds (free from bad habits!). Companies, sectors and even teams can vary so dramatically in their processes that it's often more efficient for them to educate their trainees themselves rather than hiring "ready-trained" employees and trying to alter their behaviour. In any case, plenty of graduate schemes and courses (such as the ACA) assume limited prior knowledge and are designed to be accessible.
Furthermore, in a quickly changing world in which organisations require constant innovation, broad-minded graduates educated across a variety of disciplines can offer imagination as well as novel perspectives. If university were heavily focused on career preparation, there would be the danger that the skills and views of graduates could homogenise to a point at which companies would struggle to source new cutting-edge ideas. Recruiters are clearly aware of this so will actively target those students who have maximised their time at university, demonstrating both intellectual acumen and wide-ranging experiences. And people are undoubtedly unique, as are organisations. Therefore, can there ever be a "one size fits all?" approach to preparing students for careers?
2012 graduate, University of Exeter
I think the fact that I chose a relatively vocational degree - Management with Marketing - demonstrates that I viewed university as providing sound preparation for, and a route into, my future career. This approach to university, I believe, has helped me to secure my desired graduate job working in sales and marketing for Coca-Cola Enterprises. University helped to broaden my mind in many ways both in and outside of academia. However I saw university very much as an investment in my future, especially in such a competitive job market. This personally influenced my approach to studying and I believe will become an increasingly important consideration for future students with rising university fees.