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Are degrees worth it? Part 4 - it depends

By Danny Harrington

We know this: the financial burden of taking a degree is higher than ever. Course costs are higher, the cost of living is higher, rents are higher and the government subsidises less. This is exacerbated by worries over a stagnation in graduate earnings. Although the graduate premium is currently agreed to be GBP168K and GBP252K for men and women respectively, there are large numbers of graduates whose salaries do not seem to justify the costs of their degree. It may be that super high earners distort the graduate premium higher than it may be for most (and that premium is only GBP4000-5000 per year anyway).

A Longitudinal Education Outcomes study recently highlighted that the graduates of 2004, when surveyed in 2014, had a median income of GBP31,000 and that the lower quartile median was just GBP20,000. This compared to a national median income of GBP26,500 and fairs even worse when measured against some options for school leavers. An apprenticeship at Jaguar Landrover for example paid a salary of GBP30,000 after two years training [and there is no debt attached]. We cannot be sure that for the majority of students taking a degree will lead to a worthwhile financial return.

But should we even be thinking this way? A recent article in The Guardian addresses this point very well. What happened to university as “an interval”, a time “to make up one’s mind” about the future and all surrounded by an intellectual environment in which that decision could be made free of the pressures that life must be seen purely in survival terms – financially that is, for the 21st century?

In many ways approaching university as purely a means to an end negates much of the value that university has to offer. It often creates uninspired students who perform badly. The ludicrous outcome of following the logic that universities be constantly monitored and their “outcomes” measured in personal financial return is that a) not everyone can be above average – how many public pronouncements have managed to claim that in recent years? – and b) you inherently remove value from all but the top tier of universities so either a huge swathe of people stop going to university or you continue to grow a generation of debt laden graduates who will never pay off their debt. This is made further ludicrous by the fact that unless graduates do not earn above a certain salary they do not repay anyway until the debt is written off after 30 years. So the government pays anyway!! In other ways, the government is paying to stress out an entire generation of students for no reason whatsoever.

There is no simple answer. Sure, there are students who see university as their passport out of a mediocre financial future, it is a gateway to a “better” job, degree holders are needed to support and grow the economy not just of now but of the future. But the pendulum can swing too far and the social value of these scenarios is such that both society and the degree holder benefit. To place the burden of cost on the student is to fail to recognise this. University graduates, having had that intellectual space and time to grow and develop tend to be more liberal, tolerant people with lower tendencies to commit crime. There is social value right there without even beginning to discuss the value of being educated for its own sake. Then again, I would think that wouldn’t I? I had a free education and  was allowed to enjoy all these benefits. I just think today’s students and tomorrow’s should too.

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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