The Blog

What is the Worth of a Degree?

Increasingly the choice of course to study at university is a matter that involves careful consideration and thought as to what is best; a process that now involves parents who will be expected to assist in providing funding.

The publication of the ONS (Office of National Statistics) report Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 on Tuesday makes interesting reading for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as a long-standing academic it a matter of interest to know what happens to the 'product' we produce.

Secondly, like every other parent, I am intensely concerned to want to know that the degree my children study will enhance their career prospects.

Increasingly the choice of course to study at university is a matter that involves careful consideration and thought as to what is best; a process that now involves parents who will be expected to assist in providing funding.

The most notable facts to emerge from Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 are that there are now over 12million people in the UK with degrees and that this number has increased steadily over the last decade.

In the period between 1992 and 2013 the number of those of working age with degrees has risen from 15% to 38%; most likely driven by the desire of New Labour to encourage more people to undertake university education.

Let's not forget Tony Blair's maxim 'Education, education, education' and that there was somewhat fleeting intention by his government to increase participation in higher education to 50%.

However, as far as the ONS report is concerned, there will be much attention on the statistic that shows graduates are now more likely to end up in what traditionally have been regarded as non-graduate jobs.

In 2001 the percentage was 37% but is now 47%.

Given that studying for a degree, especially full-time, requires taking on quite a large debt there will be some who begin to ask whether it is worth the investment.

I am happy to admit that I was part of a generation that was able to study for free and receive a grant.

However, it is believe that it will become common for students currently studying to graduate with debts in excess of £50,000 which would have seemed eye-watering only a generation ago.

The ONS report does demonstrably that a degree confers advantage and the statistics shows that holders are more likely to be employed than those without one. So, even though you may amass a large debt it will at least get you into the workplace though, of course, you may be taking the sort of 'entry-level' jobs that used to be the preserve of those who left school with basic or, indeed, no qualifications.

I recognise that I live in a world that is increasingly obsessed by brands. In the 'good old days' it was simply the type of trainers you wore. Now the need to establish your brand is part of every aspect of our lives and, it seems, universities are no different.

Fascinatingly the ONS report reveals that 'earning power' is influenced by the university that you go to.

Accordingly, a graduate from the so called Russell Group, the name of a hotel where the vice chancellors held a meeting in the early 1990s, is likely to earn more on average than someone who doesn't (£3.63 per hour).

The data presented by ONS shows those who study medicine will be likely to achieve the highest rate of employment (95%) and have the greatest potential to earn; the average gross annual wage being £46,000.

This exposes something that people probably already know; that if you study a science-based degree you tend to earn more.

However, the data shows provides some interesting facts that might appear anomalous.

For example, the degree with the second highest rate of employment - media and information studies - is the career with the lowest gross annual wage of £21,000.

As the saying goes, 'money makes the world go around', and I have no doubt that increasingly decisions about careers are being driven by the potential ability to earn throughout the person's career.

Money will be a key influence in the choice of course to study and university to attend.

It is no surprise that universities put a tremendous amount of effort into improving their graduates' chances of employability.

However, what is worrying is that in any 'market', which is what university education has become, so much emphasis is now placed on the 'brand' of degree you possess.

Given that a report by UUK (Universities UK) produced a report a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the number of places needed is likely to grow from almost 370,000 to 460,000 in the next 20 years we can expect competition to increase.

What is less good news is the costs of studying may go up. It is already being suggested that the more 'elite' universities (Russell Group) believe that they need to charge more to ensure that they can maintain their reputation as world class in both teaching and research.

I strongly suspect that university fees will feature in the next general election campaign; if only to give Nick Clegg a 'rough ride' for his promise last time not to increase them!

What I also believe is that there will be pressure from the Russell Group to be allowed to increase their fees so that they can better differentiate themselves form all other universities.

Professor Andrew Hamilton who is the vice chancellor of Oxford suggested in September that £16,000 was the true cost of a degree at his institution.

Professor Nick Petford of Northampton University believes that fees may rise even more. As he, contends, those universities with "high band value" may be able to charge as much as £20,000 per year for tuition.

Sadly it seems that we are moving towards the system found in the USA in which there is a hierarchy of universities and where the fees at the so called 'Ivy League' their equivalent of the Russell Group can charge $50,000 per year in fees (just over £30,000).

It really does raise the question of how much a degree is really worth?

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