Jack Molloy never thought he would go to university. He left school with two lowgrade A levels. "I was sick of education. I was always much better at the hands-on work than the written stuff, and by the end of sixth form I really wasn't interested. I just wanted to get a job and get on with my life." While his friends took gap years, Jack began an apprenticeship as a mechanic. "I really enjoyed it, but soon realised that there was no money in it at all. I was getting 70 [pounds sterling] to 90 [pounds sterling] a week, and trying to live off that and pay rent. If I'd finished the three years' training, my starting salary would have been 13,000 [pounds sterling]."
Seeing little hope of a better salary without a degree, Jack applied for a course in aeronautical engineering at the University of Salford. "I didn't want to go back into education, but I didn't feel I had any choice."
He didn't have the necessary A-level grades, yet was given a place anyway, with few questions asked. However, he was no more motivated than he had been at school. "The course was good, but I had all the same problems with the written work. I just don't enjoy it." He scraped a third-class degree and left university 12,000 [pounds sterling] in debt. He is now training to be an engineer for British Gas.
One senior lecturer at a new inner-city university sees a lot of students like Jack. "I would say that about 30 per cent of my students are simply not interested in studying," she says. "Many of them will admit that openly. They feel they have to get the qualification. It really brings down academic standards, and I feel indignant that the rest of...