Politicians often claim to have been misrepresented in the press. Now I know what it feels like. I woke up one morning last week to find a flurry of publicity in which I was reported to have warned students that a “university degree won’t get you a good job”. It was even claimed that I had advocated variable tuition fees to reflect different graduate premiums and that I had suggested, in effect, that “more means poorer”, an implicit criticism of widening participation.
This all meant that, according to one paper, the Government was “duping” students, but it was the fact that a vice-chancellor was saying all this that attracted the most attention.
None of this was true, of course, but it causes me to reflect on the way serious educational discussion is sometimes distorted in the press. To be fair, some coverage was fair and accurate, but one aspect that disturbed me was the blogging that followed the Evening Standard’s particularly tendentious and inaccurate report, a poisonous cacophony of prejudice about universities and students in general.
This coverage arose from a debate at Policy Exchange, the centre-right think-tank, on the occasion of the publication of the report by the 1994 Group, Graduate Employment and Earnings: Are Universities Meeting Student Expectation? The report, which was covered in Times Higher Education (“Research-led institutions give graduates pay premium”, November), examined the expectations and experiences of first-year students and the salaries of graduates three-and-a-half years after leaving university. These data are well known but for the first time an attempt was made to attribute the results to different types of university and according to degree subject. The report’s broad conclusion was that students at “research-intensive” universities had different expectations, greater satisfaction and better salaries than those from “other” universities.
My concerns, expressed during the discussion, were three-fold. I questioned the categories of “research-intensive” and “others” on the grounds that they oversimplified the higher education sector. I also questioned a methodology that drew conclusions about the prospects of students without examining their profile by gender, ethnicity, age and mode of study. But above all, I warned against attempting to forecast the lifetime earnings of students on the basis of slim and generalised data. The illustration I then used was the real trigger for press interest. I reminded the audience that during the tuition fee debate of 2004-05, the Government had estimated the graduate premium as £400,000 over a career and as a justification for a substantial hike in tuition fees. A year later, a study from the University of Warwick revised these estimates downwards to some £180,000. A Swansea study even suggested that the premium for arts graduates was negligible. Most recently, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has quoted a premium of £100,000. All of this, in my opinion, illustrated the danger of forecasting.
None of this suggests, however, that there is no financial advantage whatsoever from obtaining a degree. As the 1994 Group report points out, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows a higher rate of return for UK graduates than most others. But my argument is that this should not be the basis for promoting higher education and certainly should not lead us to develop precise metrics. Within “research-intensive” universities there are huge variations and it is well known that some major employers recruit only from a limited number of institutions, thus enhancing the prospects and salaries of their graduates, but we should not conclude that this is the universal experience; even within the most prestigious universities, there will be radically different outcomes for graduates. Similarly, a degree subject does not always determine a career; engineers are as likely to follow careers in financial services as in industry while historians can even end up running banks. Women, it is well understood, experience greater obstacles than men in securing higher salaries or better career prospects, and the same applies to members of some ethnic minorities.
I have long argued that we should not be persuading students to come to higher education merely on the promise of better earnings. Rather we should stress the wider benefits: personal satisfaction, the greater ability to make life-choices, the quality of life it may provide, even better health and greater happiness. This can be gained from any degree and from any institution; personal development is no one’s monopoly. And given recent history, making long-term financial predictions may be even less sensible. It is a pity that some of the journalists who heard our debate did not listen.
Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.