The gulf between what teenagers expect to earn once they have a degree and what graduates are paid is revealed by new figures produced for The Times Higher .
A league table of what graduates earned six months after leaving university also confirms the wide disparities in the earning potential of students in different subject areas. Degrees in certain disciplines - such as medicine and dentistry - can pay in excess of £10,000 more than the average graduate starting salary and £13,000 more than those at the bottom of the pay scale.
Graduates in business studies, physics, history, politics and English all earned less in 2002-03 than the average graduate starting salary of £16,485, while engineers, nurses, vets and economists were among the highest earners.
Teenagers have a far higher expectation of what difference a degree will make to their pay packet, according to a survey of 10,000 16 to 18-year-olds for the Hobsons' School-leaver Recruitment Review . On average, teenagers expected to earn £9,100 more if they finished their education as a graduate (£21,500) than if they left school and did not go on to university (Pounds 12,400). Fifty-one per cent said they expected their earnings as graduates to be between £16,000 and £20,000. Twenty-two per cent ranked their likely earnings as graduates as between £21,000 and £25,000. About one in ten expected that their earnings as degree-holders would fall between £11,000 and £15,000, the same proportion as those who thought their graduate pay would be between £26,000 and £30,000.
Bill Rammell, the new Higher Education Minister, told The Times Higher : "Making a decision about the benefits of higher education is a much longer-term game than what your starting salary will be when you first leave university. It's not what you are earning at 21, it's more a case of what you are likely to earn at 30, 35 and 40 and beyond.
"One of the things that has struck me in recent weeks, looking at international comparisons, is that the benefit of a university education in Britain is one of the highest in the world."
The graduate earnings tables, based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency also show marked differences in the employment and unemployment rates for graduates, according to their academic discipline.
While almost nine out of ten medical students said they were in a "graduate" job after leaving university, four out of ten university leavers with degrees in communication and media studies said they were not in graduate-level employment. Art and design graduates were the most likely to be unemployed (13 per cent). But one in ten engineering graduates was unemployed - but those who found work were at the upper end of the pay scale.
Alison Hodgson, chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said:
"Many of our employers now work with children in schools, so that, at the really formative ages, children begin to build up an understanding of how much a subject is worth and what rewards they will get for their years of hard study.
"Quite a few of our members - such as Ford and PricewaterhouseCoopers - are very active in schools so that children are aware of the longer term implications of the choices they make about what to study between the ages of 12 and 14."
But Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said that the Government's argument that "three debt-ridden years at university" would be rewarded with "massive salaries" was "simply not true".
Ms Fletcher said: "Sadly, Government spin has certainly done the trick with 16 to 18 year-olds who seem to have unrealistic expectations of what graduates earn. Ironically, it is this generation who will pay top-up fees and face a post-university life paying back triple the amount of that owed by today's graduates.
"Current students have no such delusions about the graduate pay packet awaiting them. Many face unemployment or years spent doing a job that is not suited to their abilities and aspirations just to prevent their debt from creeping any higher."
How much teenagers expect to be paid
From Hobsons' School-leaver Recruitment Review 2005 .
- Teenage girls have lower salary expectations - as both graduates and school-leavers - than boys. Boys thought they would earn an average of £22,300 as graduates, compared with £20,700 on average for girls.
- Teenagers believe that a degree adds about £9,000 to their annual pay packet. Expectations were highest in the North West, where teenagers thought they would earn £9,700 more with a degree than without it, and in London, where teenagers expected that being a graduate would add £9,500.
- There was only a narrow gap in expectations of teenagers from state schools, further education colleges and private schools - although state school pupils expected to earn most as non-graduates (£12,300) while, on average, private pupils had the highest expectations of what they would earn as graduates (£21,900).
- Salary expectations varied across regions. Forty-one per cent of students in the West Midlands thought they would earn less than £10,000 without a degree. But roughly half in each region thought their salaries as graduates would fall in the £16,000 to £20,000 bracket.
- Teenagers of different abilities had similar pay expectations. Students predicted to gain a below-average Ucas score expected their graduate salaries would average £20,400 - only £1,300 behind the figure expected by teenagers projected to record above-average Ucas scores.
- Teenagers thought they would earn most without a degree as accountants or in IT (£13,000 on average). Accountancy/finance also topped the graduate salary expectations (£23,100). Students said they also expected graduates in health-related topics to earn an average of £22,300. Graduate jobs in the retail sector were expected to carry the lowest average salary (£20,100).
See next week's Times Higher for the full findings of what 16 to 18-year-olds think about higher education and expect from university life.
- What do graduates do? Click here for table