Is Higher Education an "Excellent Investment"?

In November, Universities UK, the higher education advocacy group, published a blog post entitled ‘Higher education is an excellent investment, even in an economic downturn’. The post is basically an advert for university, albeit with a number of questionable, and, at times, frankly, embarrassing claims.

Yesterday their social media team tweeted the post as the deadline for applications approaches, presumably aware that November applications were down on the previous year. I wouldn’t normally be critical of a blog post, but let’s take a look at its main arguments:

1. “Those with a degree are more protected from the recession than those without.”

The author refers to data from the ONS indicating that graduates enjoy a higher employment rate (87% versus 83%) and lower unemployment rate (4% versus 5%) as compared to those whose highest qualification is A level standard. Leaving aside the fact that the percentage differences seem pitifully small (particularly considering that graduates are more likely than non-graduates to have middle-class parents who are in a position to help them find work), a simple bit of background reading appears to show that the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion.

The ONS report clearly states on the first page that its definition of a graduate isn’t just those with degrees (as the author suggests) but also “those with higher education”, which covers all sorts of vocational awards and certificates that can be granted to those who are already established within a field. It’s not hard to get work after graduating if your employer is paying for the qualification.

Looking more closely at the ONS report, a crucial piece of information that the blog post doesn’t reveal is the nature of the employment. According to the ONS report, almost half of recent graduates were working in a non-graduate role (i.e. one that didn’t require higher education or a degree). They might, for example, be pushing trolleys in a warehouse. (Use of warehouse safety helmets is probably not the kind of “protection” the author wanted us to have in mind.)

2. “The profile of earnings for graduates is rising much more quickly than for non-graduates, and graduates are earning more than non-graduates over their lifetimes.”

The author displays the difference in earnings through an impressive adaption of the ONS’s chart, which – by narrowing the x-axis, starting the y-axis at £10,000, and removing apprenticeships from the chart altogether – makes it look as though graduates are very quickly earning more than twice as much as non-graduates annually. The problem with the graduate earnings data is that it’s largely meaningless. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s based on the average earnings of graduates.

If there are four recent graduates in a room, each struggling on £10,000 a year, and a fifth graduate earning £110,000 a year walks in then the average earnings of the group will jump from £10,000 to £30,000.  This is unlikely to console them. As Fraser Nelson points out, the highest-earning professions – including law, medicine, and dentistry – tend to require degrees, skewing average earning figures for other graduates. Then there is the discrepancy between institutions, and the impact of unusually wealthy graduates.

The other reason why those thinking of applying to university should be extremely sceptical of the average and lifetime earnings data is that those at their peak earning age (of around 40) graduated in a completely different economic environment. University degrees were still relatively unusual, with 12% of the UK population having degrees in 1993, compared to 25% in 2010 (according to the Guardian) and only 19.3% of students participating in higher education in 1990 (according to this parliamentary report) compared to almost 50% today. The earnings data also doesn’t account for the negative impact of struggling to find work during a recession (which has been known as the ‘scarring effect‘). In short, the data is virtually useless as an indicator of what today’s graduates can expect their average earnings to be in twenty years.

The ONS’s average earnings data does have some use, though. It shows that a 21-year-old graduate earns on average less than a 21-year-old with an apprenticeship – a fact that’s unclear from the blog post’s chart due to it conveniently leaving out apprenticeships.

3. “There is personal benefit in attaining higher education, which has been shown for many aspects of life, including health, well-being and personal development.”

This is the part that really got to me. At least with the other claims, the author refers to some evidence rather than resorting to saying only that it has “been shown”. Let’s look at what’s been shown for a moment.

  • – Demand for support services has risen by nearly a third since 2008.
  • – Student suicides rose by 49% between 2007 and 2011.
  • – In an NUS survey of 1200 students last year, 80% reported feeling stressed and 13% claimed to have had suicidal thoughts.

Evidently the well-being benefits of higher education are not as clear-cut as the author might like to think.  The author’s half-hearted attempt to suggest otherwise, which reads more like an afterthought than a genuine point, is an indication that Universities UK does not see the wellbeing of students as a priority issue (despite its relevance to the ‘lost generation‘ claims that the author refers to).

Although Universities UK hosts a Working Group for Promotion of Well-being in Higher Education, the group receives no funding or advocacy support and is run by charitable university support staff in what little time they can find around very demanding university roles.

4. “Society as a whole also benefits by greater engagement through civic engagement, citizenship and lower crime rates, as described in the recent BIS report. It is clear that higher education is not only a good investment for those individuals who directly go to university, but it is a good investment for the UK’s economy and society too.”

Actually, most of this is probably true. Having more young people in university probably does increase ‘civic engagement’ and deter people from questioning authorities and institutions. And it probably does support the economy, at least in appearance (and until the next financial crisis).

But for those weighing up whether or not to go to university, these factors should be completely irrelevant. You should dismiss them, just as you should all the other misleading claims about higher education being a good investment. If you decide to go, go because it’s what you really want, not because you think it’s a safe option or that it’s expected of you. And certainly not because it will make you a ‘good citizen’.

For ideas about alternatives to university, take a look at www.notgoingtouni.co.uk

Edit
The Universities UK blog post was edited after this post was published, and now includes the following: “(chapter 3 of the supporting analysis for the higher education White Paper 2011 summarises some of the studies done on the wider benefits from higher education).” Unfortunately for Universities UK, the White Paper contains no evidence of the benefits to “health, well-being, and personal development” that the blog post claims have “been shown”. They have not responded to a requests for comment.