The Youth Lab

Youth & education: Changing 3rd level attitudes

Experts predict there will be over 21 million students in US third level institutions by 2020. This will be a 40% increase on figures recorded at the turn of the millennium. Ireland witnessed an 11% increase in the number of undergraduate students between 2011 and 2016, while the UK is now home to over 2.3 million students across its 162 Higher Education institutes.


It seems definitive that student life is one filled with fun, socializing and a little bit of study on the side. Stepping onto a 3rd level campus you can smell the excitement of the freedom and endless possibilities that await. While fun is still a constant campus feature, students in 2018 are becoming more competitive and determined when it comes to their education, because they have to.

One of our biggest takeouts from our investigation this year on the world of work from the perspective of youth, was the financial instability and lack of security afforded to young people in the modern workforce. Because of this current instability, young people aren’t necessarily identifying specific careers the way traditionally people have, working backwards from an ideal to secure a lifelong job. Instead, the focus is turning more on the individual – it's about finding yourself first – to make yourself employable or to create a job for yourself.

‘Finding yourself’ is no easy task. Combine this struggle with increased competition and financial pressures, and it’s no surprise that students today are facing serious mental health challenges. Anxiety, depression and suicide rates among students have risen dramatically over the past number of years - in 2015 in the UK, more than 15,000 first-year students disclosed a mental health condition — nearly five times the number in 2006. Similarly in the US in 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety”.

These struggles mean that there is a renewed focus on the individual when it comes to education. With this, students are focusing on more practical outcomes for their time spent studying. No longer is university being treated by young students as all fun and games or a space for free time to think and question about ones place in the world and the future. Young people are opting for courses where they feel they are best placed to be able to walk into jobs afterwards. Having witnessed economic downturn, they want to ensure that their education actually leads to positive and sustainable outcomes.

The youth attitude has, out of necessity, adapted a more professional tone toward 3rd level. This increased sense of self-reliance also drives a call for more freedom in the classroom and bespoke educational approaches.


When things are being looked at through a future-focused professional lens and the realization hits that everyone has a 3rd level education, and more students are getting higher grades, how does an individual impress a potential employer? While there are ways to make a CV unique with extra curriculars and things you do outside of the classroom, other young entrepreneurial students are starting to question and become disillusioned with the value of third level institutions.

Stacey Woolsey is a young postgrad student working with the Science Gallery London. She is currently in the middle of a year-long project to create her own masters.

“I wanted to do a traditional MA”, she says, “but I’m unable to find myself through an existing course. So, I decided to make my own. I’m creating a community feel and an entirely personal curriculum sourced from designers in industry whose work I love, to provide myself with a year of free and completely unique education.”

Woolsey was in education for so long that she says she got to a point where she felt she couldn’t access it any further. She puts her unique course of action down to eventually finding the balls to do her own thing through a mindset change, born out of frustration of alternatives not working for her; “I think at some point everyone will just have enough of it and do what they want”, she predicts, with certainty that her qualification will help her get noticed when it comes to finding a job down the line.

Academic programmes are increasingly seen by savvier students as outdated or narrowly defined, as they compare and contrast their syllabuses with the latest innovations, publications and theories online. With immediate access to unique and different content at their fingertips, educators are challenged to seriously impress.

With this increased focus on self-direction and creativity in education, there is a real need for individual learning plans rather than something copied and pasted for the masses. Young students are changing the dynamics of actual classroom experience to realize this, leaning in favour of active learning rather than traditionally passive methods of learning. Philip, a 21 year old undergraduate politics student also rejects the one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and welcomes more play and freedom in 3rd level education:

“Learning of your own accord is much more fun. It makes you actually care about what you are learning and pushes you to more. Rote learning really doesn’t equip us for life outside of the education system and it doesn’t make us care or enjoy what we are learning, while individualized, more dynamic learning does.”

In fact, 51% of ‘Gen Z’ say they learn by doing and being hands on, rather than seeing or listening.

Of course, an increased focus on individual performance in education can lead to vulnerable students feeling even more exposed - drop-out rates are a concern. For example, twenty-six thousand students in England who began studying for their first degree in 2015 did not make it beyond the first year. However, as students increasingly put a focus on figuring out what is and isn’t for them, we foresee that forging your own unique education experience, rather than blindly following a one-for-all approach, will be the way of the future.