Return salvo in row over value of going to university

University leaders in the United Kingdom are fighting back after being stung by accusations from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and ministers that they are offering ‘rip-off’ degrees with high drop-out rates, poor job prospects and government threats of strict student number controls for ‘bad degrees’ unless universities get their house in order.

In what looks like a return salvo in the ‘culture war’ being waged by the Conservative government in the run-up to Britain’s next general election, the vice-chancellors’ and rectors’ representative body, Universities UK (UUK), has released new research findings showing what they say is the true worth of higher education.

Their report, titled The Value of Going to University, is the start of a campaign continuing up to the next general election, which a UUK spokeswoman told University World News aims to “alter the focus of what has become an increasingly antagonistic debate, with accusations of low-quality and ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees flying around”.

One of the key arguments from the university side is that the true value of higher education for graduates and employers extends far beyond looking at earnings 15 months after graduation, as currently measured in the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Graduate Outcomes Survey Data, which is often used by the government as a yardstick for university success.

The latest HESA graduate outcome data released on 31 May is for 2020 to 2021 graduates and shows that 61% of those responding to the survey said they were in full-time employment, a 4% increase on 2019-21, with the median salary for females remaining unchanged from 2019-21, while the median salary for male graduates increased from £25,000 (US$31,930) to £27,000.

That’s an interesting figure, given that the level at which repayments start for government-backed loans for home students to cover tuition fees and help towards maintenance costs has just been reduced, from £27,000 to £25,000, meaning most male graduates will start paying off their student debt a year or so after graduating in England.

Measure more than earnings

However, according to two surveys conducted for Universities UK, one among graduates and the other among business leaders, both said the value of going to university should not just be measured on earnings.

Instead, they said: look at the transferable skills, such as problem solving, time-management and teamwork, which are picked up at university “equipping the next generation with the skills to fuel their own work mobility and return UK PLC to growth”.

One of the surprising results of the research, according to University UK spokeswoman Alice Gent, was that graduates who were the first in their family to go to university had a higher average starting salary than those who were not the first to attend: £30,111 compared to £27,754.

That backs up a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies on behalf of the Department of Education, which found that university graduates who were eligible for free school meals are more likely to enter the top 20% of earnings by the age of 30 than free school meal school students who did not go on to higher education.

Going to university opened doors

Of those who were the first in their family to go to university, 78% of graduates and 71% of business leaders said that going to university opened doors into companies for them.

Meanwhile, 73% of business leaders believe that going to university introduces graduates to peers who can help them build their careers, and 77% of graduates said a degree helped them build skills that have been professionally valuable.

The findings are based on ‘bespoke consumer research’ conducted by Censuswide among 3,505 UK graduates and 3,506 business leaders using a nationally representative make up, UUK told University World News, with the research conducted in mid to late June 2023.

“All respondents were sourced using an accredited online research access panel,” said UUK, with Development Economics mapping the results against existing data sets and reports, such as the Graduate Outcome survey and Office for National Statistics (ONS) vacancy data by industry for 2015-2023.

The graduates who were surveyed were all established in their careers and aged between 25 and 35. They were asked questions such as: “Which routes best described how you first gained employment after graduating?” Additionally, they were quizzed about the negative and positive impacts of going to university and how long it took to achieve a role that reflected their career ambitions.

Questions were also asked about salary levels, progression and life skills gained at university, as well as the level of careers’ support available at university and through networking activities.

Political rhetoric will put off some scholars

The UUK campaign has already attracted national media interest in the UK, with The Times quoting Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, on 31 July, saying political rhetoric about rip-off universities was disproportionately likely to discourage first generation scholars from applying to university.

She added: “It is unlikely that the kids of the middle classes and those whose parents have been to university will be put off from university, but those who would be the first in their family to attend, mature learners, or those from more deprived backgrounds, may well be.”

The campaign is being backed by universities up and down the UK using case studies, such as the story of Cheryl Torano, a graduate from Abertay University, Scotland, who overcame a ‘nightmare’ childhood in and out of the care system and had to drop out of further education when she discovered she was pregnant with a second child.

She is now 36 and has just written a chapter about her turbulent upbringing for a new book, The Rise of the Cyber Women, which details stories by women who are pioneers in the industry but had to overcome adversity on the way up.

She worked in the university’s external relations department after graduating from the university’s Ethical Hacking course, eventually moving on to work as a cyber security engineer.

Another woman featured in the campaign is 31-year-old Megan Galuidi, who took a job after leaving school in what she calls “an area deemed as more ‘gender appropriate’ due to common ideologies of societal norms and gender role expectation”.

Three years ago, she decided to study her first love – mechanical engineering – at her local Teesside University in Middlesbrough and has just graduated and is about to start work with a local engineering company.

Gent said that campaign material being developed will be presented in briefings with politicians and other key stakeholders to demonstrate the life-changing value of higher education and how universities are playing a key role in levelling-up and social mobility in cities and towns all over Britain.

“We want to counter negativity with real life graduate success stories,” she told University World News.

Global education consultant and higher education blogger Alan Preece said: “A focused campaign is welcome, but the success or otherwise will depend on the quality, consistency and power of their messaging.”

He told University World News: “The sector has a lot of ground to make up in terms of reputation, public goodwill and broader support.

“There will have to be some serious engagement with perceptions around grade inflation and value for money courses alongside powerful and consistent messaging on the positive power of higher education to change lives and benefit society.

“Being honest and transparent with data will be important as will a degree of humility about any deficiencies that the sector is trying to correct. The public would welcome good news and feel part of a great UK success story, but they will smell lack of authenticity and selfish motivations a mile away.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.