"Universities get paid to stamp out graduates so they're clearly going to take the simplest path."
Ummm, clearly you don't know what you;re talking about.
Universities are paid tutition fees, regardless of how many people graduate, people pay for their learning, not the certificate at the end. regardless of whether you pass or fail you pay the same amount.
In fact those that fail would usually re-take a year or more of studies, universities could make more money by not passing more people.
"Or I could do A levels followed by a degree in media studies and jump straight in the jobs market after 5 yrs learning with a good chance of earning 22K a yr as a starting rate"
You REALLY think that?
could it be that UK engineering is in decline because all the UK engineers are self important self righteous idiots who spend their days surfing the internet rather than actually working?
ok perhaps that was over the top.
but as someone else pointed out above, nobody is guaranteed a job regardless of what they do as a degree subject.
as it is I think that everyone knows of or has heard of a "designer" that has some degree in a bachelor of arts that gets paid ten times as much as the bachelor, (or even master) or engineering that they'd grew up with just for drawing swirls all day.
but then I challenge you to actually do that? go on, draw a logo, lets see how successful it is, don't believe me that it's shit? show it to some honest friends.
I have friends who graduated in media subject who are now flipping burgers. whilst I'm earning more doing a job in IT.
To be honest I believe that the real reason that UK engineering is in decline is that it's difficult. it takes a long time to actually get good at, and a long time to progress through the industry. so a lot of people just don't bother.
(and I say this as a graduate in engineering, who also managed to retain respect for other people and the work that they can do).