Magdalen College School Master Helen Pike on why a decision to go to university has never been so difficult for young people.

University application season is in full swing.

This term, tens of thousands of students are labouring over the dreaded UCAS personal statement.

How can they convey their love of their chosen subject and all the uniqueness of their personality in 47 lines or 4,000 characters?

Last year, almost 239,000 pupils were accepted at a university, with almost a third of young people entering higher education.

While this is a large number on the face of it, the percentage of young people choosing higher education is declining year-on-year.

There is one obvious reason for this: going to university is not cheap, and it will most likely lead to a generation of debt, a burden of compound interest which is effectively a tax on study.

Further, with the National Audit Office stating last week that the Department for Education should do more to prevent 'mis-selling' by universities, potential undergraduates will think more carefully than ever before about committing their time and money to further study.

I was one of the last to be able to go to Oxford with my fees paid and on a full student grant.

When I mention this to my pupils, they look at me as though I am a relic from a bygone era (which I increasingly am).

For them, the question of why they would opt for further study has never been more stark.

How do they decide if it is worth it?

The most obvious and blunt cost-benefit analysis compares like with like: money paid compared to future salary. Recently the Russell Group of universities suggested that its graduates could expect average earnings of £88k a year.

This adds to research in 2015 which suggests that Oxbridge graduate can expect lifetime earnings of nearly three times their counterparts who have no qualifications.

What these figures conceal is that they are skewed by the very high earners at the top of the tree.

Comparatively few people earn very high salaries—those in the top tax bracket of £150k + account for only one per cent of taxpayers.

Most people don’t go to university expecting to earn a fortune.

In my experience young people tend to be motivated more by love than by money.

They carry on studying because they are committed to what they want to do.

And this is important, because universities are not finishing schools for elites – and they were never intended to be.

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world, and one of the many reasons why it has flourished is that it has continually rethought why its students might want to come.

In the earl 19th century, John Henry Newman wrote the ‘Idea of a University,’ and what he had to say in 1852 still resonates today.

For Newman, universities are places which prepare pupils for the world in the widest sense.

Not for him a vocational education: the essence of university life was to insure against narrow-mindedness and sectarian blindness.

This kind of intellectual own-sake-ism might seem narrow to us, even old-fashioned to the point of irrelevance. But of course, there is no need to turn this into an either-or argument.

We want doctors, lawyers and engineers who are humane, tolerant, rational thinkers as much as we expect this from our history or sociology graduates.

It is a privilege to be able to study, and most students recognise this and work pretty hard.

Perhaps not ‘down-a-coal mine’ hard, but they take their studies seriously.

Medicine and engineering demand many hours in lectures and labs, and even English and history students burn the midnight oil in the library honing their arguments.

The three years I spent as an undergraduate in Oxford transformed my life, and that is part of the reason why I am back here in Oxford encouraging young people to continue their studies in transformative institutions.

Whether or not you are planning a vocational course or furthering your love of subject for its own sake and the discipline of further study, going to university can be a great experience.

It is a pity that it is now so costly, and inevitably it will deter some of those whose parents are not wealthy.

This is a shame, because for Newman’s vision of the university as a place of 'universal knowledge' to endure, we need to ensure that everyone can be able to contribute to that.