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How Propagandists Manipulate the Facts to Sell the University Dream

16/01/2014 13:12 | Updated 17 March 2014

It was the blog's lackadaisical attitude towards student wellbeing that got to me. The way it claims that higher education has "been shown" to benefit the 'health and well-being' of students, without providing a shred of evidence (and in the face of this, this, and this). But it's the misleading employment claims that show how far propagandists are prepared to go to sell university places.

For those that are unaware, Universities UK is a membership charity that (as you might guess from the name) acts on behalf of the majority of the UK's universities. The aims of the organisation (which recently came under fire for its stance on gender segregation) include to "support universities in their primary aims of educating students, carrying out research and innovation, and strengthening civic society".

The blog post in question was written by the Universities UK 'Policy and Data Analyst' and uses new ONS data to make a number of claims, including that those with a degree have a lower unemployment rate than those whose highest qualification is an A-level. Unfortunately that's not what the data shows.

The first page of the ONS report states that the graduate figures refer to all those who have been through higher education, including recipients of diplomas and certificates typically awarded to those with professional experience. For instance, the Chartered Management Institute offers a Level 7 Award to senior managers. It's not really surprising that for those with such an award unemployment should be low. We can assume, then, that had the unemployment figure only related to those with degrees, it might have been considerably higher. Of course, those casually reading the blog won't know this. They'll assume that the author of such an authoritative blog has got the facts right.

For an organisation that describes itself as "the voice of UK universities" it's embarrassing that their official blog features such an obvious misuse of data. At best it's carelessness, at worst, a deliberate attempt to foil the public. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

Further claims in the blog relate to average salaries. Glancing at the impressive graph gives the illusion that graduates in their forties have average earnings twice as high as non-graduates, and that the data is a good prediction of what today's graduates can expect in the future. Neither is true.

In his bestselling book, The Black Swan, statistician Nassim Taleb discusses the problems with using averages, warning, "don't cross a river if it is four foot deep on average". Those university candidates looking at average earnings data as an indicator of their future prospects should be just as wary - not only because of the issues with averages, but because of the changes in the jobs market over the past twenty years.

The highest earning university graduates, who are in their early-forties according to the graph, graduated at a time when the jobs market and economy were completely different. The proportion of the labour force with a degree has (according to the Guardian) doubled in twenty years, slashing the usefulness of a degree as a way of differentiating between job candidates. Additionally, economic turmoil and the shift towards a 'knowledge economy' have created a skills gap that has forced almost half of graduates into non-graduate roles. The effect on average earnings is that, according to the same ONS report, 21-year-olds with an apprenticeship are earning more than 21-year-old graduates.

None of this is to say that university is not worthwhile for many. Of course it is. But to judge the value of a degree based on the success of those who graduated twenty years ago is like using a 1993 edition of the Financial Times to pick investments. Those considering university would do far better to ignore the propaganda and do their own research.