Out of your league

May 28, 2009

Alan Ryan ("The trouble with tables", 21 May) writes with his customary acerbic wit on the absurdity of attempting to rank UK universities on single scales in terms of quality. I was astonished by his conclusion that "a league table showing the cost to punters, course by course, university by university, and how much difference higher education could be expected to make to students' lifetime income would be genuinely useful".

The implications that a universal financial measure of the value of higher education, or indeed, an analysis of what "could be expected", are either possible or desirable - or that the returns to higher education are solely or even mainly to be measured in earnings - do not sound like the assumptions of a rational political philosopher. Where has he been during the debates about "the graduate premium"? Research conducted at this institute on early graduate careers indicates that few students are motivated by a belief that their degrees will enable them to earn high wages or maximise their earnings potential.

Education and employment have other values; otherwise who would have careers in higher education? I am sure Ryan's earnings are satisfactory, but if he had been motivated by these earnings or the financial contribution he could make to the economy, I doubt he would have made the choices he has made.

Kate Purcell, Professor, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick.

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