From education to employment

Approach to judging the ‘value’ of a degree needs overhaul

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London

Universities UK’s President speaks out about higher education’s need to better explain its benefits

Measures used to assess the value of a degree course could be completely overhauled under proposals to government put forward by Universities UK (UUK).

In future, government and universities would be able to use a new tool which measures the value of individual subjects beyond just graduate earnings. This could be to the benefit of students themselves as well as to wider society and the economy.

In a major speech on the topic of value in higher education, UUK President Professor Julia Buckingham called on government to broaden its definition of ‘value’ beyond a student’s expected future salary alone and to recognise the less celebrated, yet vital benefits of studying for a degree. She also issued a rallying call to the sector to do more to address concerns around value and respond more effectively where there are legitimate concerns.

To support the government in adopting a new approach, UUK is outlining proposed new measures against which it believes universities can demonstrate the success and contribution of their courses. These include the proportion of graduates working in essential public services, the number taking positions in sectors and regions with skills shortages, or the likelihood of a graduate starting their own business. The tool would allow universities to assess and illustrate the wider benefits to students of university life, such as their life satisfaction, personal health and opportunities to get involved in volunteer work.

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, said:

“While universities need to work collectively and respond more effectively to legitimate challenges around the value of some university degrees, government also needs to broaden its current narrow definition of success based on salaries alone. This is a blunt tool which does a disservice to students and recent graduates, while failing to consider the wider student experience.

“A much broader approach which takes account the other benefits of a university degree would better reflect what is important to students, parents, employers and society.

“We need to look beyond an individual’s P60 and think about the total package of what they have learnt and achieved through their time at university.”

Accusing ministers of “lacking nuance” when considering the value of higher education, Professor Buckingham has called on universities to pay attention to wellbeing rather than just earning potential. She argued that by judging the success of a degree on salary outcomes alone, politicians are failing to understand what motivates current students.

Sarah Harvey, COO of Prodigy Finance, agrees that not all higher education is worth a heavy student loan:

“This raises the important question around whether higher education is always worth the high cost and time investment. Not all degrees are made equal, and the commonly accepted philosophy that more education is better is fuelling a rise in students who have huge levels of debt for a degree that does not always deliver return on investment.

“Professor Buckingham makes the valid point that there is more nuance to this than just financials. It is universities and ministers’ responsibility to educate students about the potential returns of a degree – in whichever metrics matter to them – to enable them to make a truly informed decision around higher education.”

As part of its response to the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, UUK established a number of Vice-Chancellor working groups to consider the issues raised in the report.

Following research showing that students themselves do not see future salary as the driving factor in their higher education choices, the group exploring the value of a university education is committed to making the case to government to adopt a broader definition. This new framework will shortly be presented to government to help identify what the wider themes of that approach might be.

Professor Julia Buckingham is giving the keynote address at Advance HE’s ‘Let’s talk value’ conference in London. 

In September, Universities UK commissioned Savanta ComRes to carry out research which found 84% of students and recent graduates agreed that future salary was not the only factor in choosing their degree. Eight in 10 surveyed thought the government should do more to promote the wider benefits of studying at university and define them more broadly than by future earnings alone. 

Currently the government’s analysis of educational outcomes known as LEO (Longitudinal educational outcomes) is based on predicted future earnings. Various concerns have been raised about this approach, including from the minister David Willetts who originally commissioned the project.

Related Articles