University degrees – are they worth the cost?

college graduates group

By Heather Cameron

Often cited as the best path to a successful career, university degrees continue to come under the spotlight with questions over their actual value, particularly with tuition fees now starting to increase.

Millions of young people who received their exam results last month will be weighing up their options. But what was perhaps once a fairly straightforward decision for many, is made far more complex by the modern financial burden of undertaking a degree, coupled with the availability of alternative routes without the prospect of accruing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in the process.

Cost

It certainly isn’t a cheap option to pursue a university degree. For 2017, many colleges/universities across the UK will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,250. And this doesn’t include the living costs of student life. The National Union of Students (NUS) has estimated that the average annual cost of living in England (outside of London) for students is £12,056.

Recent YouGov Omnibus research, which surveyed more than 500 current students and recent graduates, found that one in three recent graduates disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”. It also identified ‘significant pessimism’ among both graduates and students over loans and whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. A large proportion (41%) don’t expect to ever pay off their student loan.

However, it was also noted that many recent graduates may have false expectations about how much they will have to pay back. More than four in ten (41%) said they didn’t understand how the interest rate on student loans works.

Research into the number of ‘contact’ hours a student receives over the course of their degree has been suggested to support the opinion that it is not good value for money. The average humanities student will have around 10 hours per week of scheduled ‘contact’ time in lectures and seminars, although it is often less. And there is much variation across subject areas, which is not reflected in tuition fees. According to an economics lecturer at the New College of the Humanities in London, “It certainly seems like humanities students are subsidising Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] students.”

Job prospects

In addition to the cost of doing a degree featuring in the decision to pursue this path, the employment prospects following a degree have also received attention.

A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that there is a great deal of diversity among graduate earnings. While almost all institutions have graduates with earnings above the 20th percentile of the non-graduate earnings distribution, and most institutions have graduates with earnings above the non-graduate median, graduate earnings for men at more than one in 10 universities were lower than for non-graduates. And earnings for graduate women were found to be worse at nine institutions of the 166 included.

The findings also show that that graduates who came originally from wealthier backgrounds earned significantly more than their poorer counterparts ten years after graduation, even if they had studied the same course at the same institution.

This also raises questions over the value of a degree, particularly for those students from poorer backgrounds.

Having a degree certainly doesn’t guarantee a job with a competitive salary at the end of it, or indeed even a job at all as previous research has shown. Nevertheless, the IFS findings do highlight that higher education does pay for the majority, with graduates more likely to be in work and earn more than non-graduates.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction with degrees among students has shown to be relatively high overall. The latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey reveals that most students believe they are learning ‘a lot’ and perceptions of teaching quality are rising.

However, the survey also shows there continues to be a downward trend in perceptions of value, which has been highlighted as a particular concern. The percentage of students who think university is not value for money has almost doubled in the last five years.

The wellbeing of students also continues to be relatively low compared to the rest of the population and the majority oppose the high-fees model of funding.

Final thoughts

The cost of pursuing a degree along with the evidence on graduate earnings suggests that higher education may no longer be the leveller it once was perceived to be. Rather, it may appear that university degrees are once again becoming a path only for those from the richest households.

Clearly there is a lot for policy-makers to consider.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on graduate employment.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Graduating into a brighter future?

Image from Flickr user Luftphilla, licensed under Creative Commons

by Stacey Dingwall

Post-recession, the employment situation for UK graduates has not been great. Following the economic crash, headlines and statistical releases alike screamed about how bad it was out there for the recently graduated. Graduates were portrayed as either unemployed or underemployed, i.e. forced to accept roles for which their qualifications were not required or unpaid internships. With the end of the recession however, has the situation improved?

The graduate job recession

In 2010, the number of graduates in full-time work, three months post-graduation was 51% – its second-lowest level since 2003 (57%). And in 2009 The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) was reporting that the number of graduate vacancies being advertised had fallen by up to a quarter since before the recession.

With record numbers of graduates now competing for each vacancy, and competing not only with their own graduating class but also with earlier cohorts, it could have been concluded that the era of the traditional graduate employment route was on its way out.

A return to form?

According to recent figures, however, things are looking up. Previewing the second 2015 update of its Graduate Recruitment survey, AGR describes the current graduate market as ‘buoyant’, and notes that the findings of the previous survey indicated an 11.9% increase in graduate vacancies on the previous year. These findings are backed up by the September 2014 edition of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s (HESCU’s) What do graduates do, which described the employment prospects for 2012/13 graduates as ‘dramatically improved’ compared to those of their immediate predecessors, with their unemployment rate six months after graduating down at 7.3% from the previous year’s 8.5%.

Additionally, the most recent release of the High Fliers graduate recruitment study suggests that those graduating in 2015 are doing so into the “most attractive graduate market in a decade”, and predicts 8% more vacancies than the previous year. It also notes that the class of 2015 are the first to graduate having paid tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year; this has led to the end of the image of students merely partying their way through their time at university, with the majority now focused on securing a promising career for themselves from as early as first year.

The new face of the graduate job

The prospect of graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of debt appears to be proving quite the motivation for today’s students. Rather than waiting until their final year to seek out internships and careers advice, High Fliers reports that firms are now taking on first year undergraduates in placement roles. Building up a relationship with a desired employer as early as possible is now the key way of securing a job post-graduation according to the report, with those with little or no work experience described as having “no chance” of receiving the offer of a place on a firm’s graduate programme.

AGR’s chief executive Stephen Isherwood has also pointed towards this trend, suggesting that graduate recruitment is being replaced with ‘student recruitment’, as those leaving university face competition from those still at university who have already been hired by employers for apprenticeships or have succeeded in finding an employer to sponsor them through the rest of their studies.

Another issue, as highlighted by Gerbrand Tholen, is the changing definition of what constitutes a graduate job. He notes that the previous understanding of what made a graduate occupation (those that combined expertise, strategic and managerial skills and interactive skills) has been abandoned in favour of defining the extent to which the role utilises specialist, orchestration or communication expertise.

This has led to a blurring between the lines of graduate and non-graduate roles, and also issues with compiling official statistics on the number of graduates employed in each arena. In 2014, the director of High Fliers, Martin Birchall, criticised the Office for National Statistics for not updating their definition of a graduate job since 2002, after they released data which suggested that 47% of recent graduates were not working in jobs which required a higher education qualification. This issue is further compounded by the issue of ‘over-education’ and ‘under-employment’, and the question of whether employers have been able to benefit from a more highly skilled workforce.

The graduate class problem

An important thing to keep in mind is that reporting on graduate labour market trends tends to focus primarily on the most general of findings – considering graduates as a homogenous group. This is particularly true in terms of the social backgrounds of graduates: research has found, and is continuing to find, significant differences in the labour market experience for graduates from working class backgrounds and their more socially privileged backgrounds. Until this much wider issue of a lack of social mobility within the graduate labour market can be addressed, it is perhaps too early to describe the situation as ‘buoyant’ – at least for everyone.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on education and employment trends; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading on the topics covered in this blog *

‘Graduate jobs’ in OECD countries: development and analysis of a modern skills-based indicator (LLAKES research paper 53)

What do graduates do? Employment review, IN Graduate Market Trends, Autumn 2014, pp12-14

Graduates’ experiences of non-graduate jobs: stop gaps, stepping stones, or dead ends?, IN Graduate Market Trends, Summer 2014, pp6-8

‘You have to be well spoken: students’ views on employability within the graduate labour market, IN Journal of Education and Work, Vol 27 No 2 Apr 2014, pp179-198

The gap between the proportion of young graduates from professional backgrounds who go on to a “graduate job” six months after graduating and young graduates from non-professional background

We need to talk about graduates: the changing nature of the UK graduate labour market

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service