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

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.

How We Can All Make A Difference on University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day

Note: This article was originally published on, here.

It seems like almost every day is an awareness day for something or other. There are a handful of awareness days, weeks, and months that get global attention and raise funds for vital causes. But then there are more obscure awareness days, not necessarily any less vital, perhaps, yet not quite managing to gain the same attention. There is, apparently, a National Pig Day, a Potato Awareness Week, and even a National Toilet Tank Repair Month – which, coincidentally, falls in the same month as National Pickled Peppers Month.

So it was with some trepidation that the idea of a University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day was put to me. Would it get lost in a sea of awareness days? Would the creation of yet another awareness day cause eyes to roll? I was unsure. But after thinking about it, I realised that an awareness day isn’t just about trying to squeeze a date into the diaries of those who would otherwise be uninterested. It’s also about aggregating the resources of those who are already involved with a cause – to get stuff done.

There are many people with an interest in university mental health; including university support staff, student unions, charities, and a growing number of student campaigners. But it’s hard to unite everyone. The issues are complex, and we have our own narrow remits and institutional issues to deal with. This is where University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day comes in. For one day of the year we can try and take a step back from the individual problems we’re working on, focus our resources on addressing the issues that exist across institutions, and know that there are others, all around the UK, who will be doing exactly the same.

Tomorrow is the second annual University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day, led by the University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAN). Amidst the campus events and activities aiming to raise awareness of mental health, there will be an opportunity to work towards accomplishing specific, shared goals. Goals that are unambiguous and worthy of broad support.

The most comprehensive guidance paper for university mental health is the Royal College of Psychiatrists’2011 report, which outlines a series of recommendations for how universities can improve the mental health of their members. In its recommendations, there is one that stands out for being relatively straightforward and achievable, and it’s this in particular that, in 2013, campaigners have an opportunity to push for. The recommendation reads as follows:

It is recommended that all higher education institutions have a formal mental health policy. This should ensure that they meet statutory obligations under disability legislation. It should also cover areas such as health promotion, the provision of advice and counselling services, student support and mentoring, and special arrangements for examinations (Universities UK/GuildHE Working Group for the Promotion of Mental Well-Being in Higher Education, 2006).”

It’s a precise recommendation, and when combined with guidelines on developing a mental health policy, available for download from the website for the Working Group for Promotion of Mental Well-being in Higher Education, there seems little room for ambiguity.

At its most basic, a mental health policy represents an institution’s commitment to supporting the mental health of its members. With it, staff and students can be familiar with the rights and opportunities offered to them, they can hold the institution accountable to its policy, and they can seek improvements to it when they deem it necessary. But it’s more than this. It provides a shared starting point from which the institution and its members can collectively identify and explore broader issues that go beyond the scope of the institution, such as cultural and political factors affecting the Higher Education sector at large.

For the policy to be meaningful it needs to be actively monitored, and reviewed and updated to reflect the needs of students and staff, as well as ongoing changes that affect universities. This is why each university should be encouraged to make their mental health policy publicly available through their website.

In December I wrote an article asking, ‘whose responsibility is student mental health?’ There was no easy answer to it. But on University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day, there is something we can all do. We can give our support to the range of activities taking place. We can champion great work by students, staff, and institutions. And we can push for each institution to have in place a formal, up to date, and publicly available mental health policy. It might not fix everything, but it’s a start.

Visit here to sign a petition urging the CEO of Universities UK – the representative body for 134 institutions – to encourage and support all of its member institutions in developing a mental health policy.

The cause of low mental health disclosure rates: "Fear of appearing weak" or poor publicity?

Yesterday, The Times Higher Education (THE) published an article suggesting that the low number of students and staff disclosing mental health problems could be explained by “a fear of appearing weak”. I’m not sure that’s a good explanation.

Firstly, the context — The article refers to a report from the Equality Challenge Unit (a charity that, according to its website, “works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education”) highlighting that just 0.7% of students and 0.2% of staff are reporting a mental health problem. Even using conservative estimates about the prevalence of mental health problems, there is clearly a very significant number of students and staff that are not disclosing their condition.

The consensus is that stigma prevents disclosure, and that if people feel less stigmatised then the number reporting their conditions will grow. That may be true. But there’s a question in this discussion that needs more attention: Why should they disclose?

If the sector believes that students and staff will benefit from disclosing a mental health problem to their institution then they need to explain how. And it would follow that if the numbers still aren’t increasing then it’s because students and staff don’t think the advantages are significant enough. Or they still know nothing about them.

The ECU’s report states that students with a disability who access Disability Support Allowance don’t only benefit financially, but are also more likely to receive a first class or upper-second class degree. If institutions want more DSA uptake then they need to publicise this, and use it as a way of communicating the benefits of disclosure. They can start by addressing the issue of most students and staff not knowing that they would be entitled to DSA due to confusion around the use of the word ‘disability’. Or by developing, and making available to all staff and students, a university-wide mental health policy – as recommended in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report into student mental health.

Stigma is a part of this. But stigma should not be used by policy-makers as a way of shifting responsibility away from their role. If institutions want more of their members to disclose a mental health problem then it’s up to them to give good reasons for doing so. Gary Loke doesn’t seem to understand this:

Gary Loke, head of policy at the Equality Challenge Unit, said the survey showed that many people in the academy with mental illness were suffering in silence.

“If you do not disclose you have a problem, universities cannot help you,” he said. “Institutions are generally very supportive to disabled staff, but people need to feel they can come forward and talk about their mental health problems.”

You may mean well, Gary, but the bigger question to answer is this: how will universities help those that talk about their mental health problems? And what exactly do you mean when you say that institutions are “generally” very supportive? The burden of responsibility for low disclosure rates does not end with those that are not disclosing;  institutions must work on creating settings in which people feel inclined to disclose.