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Does it matter which university you study at?

By Danny Harrington

This was the question answered in a recent BBC Education survey by their education correspondent Sean Coughlan and it threw up some interesting points. He noted that while in an ideal world we would all get onto a course that we enjoyed in a place that suited our needs, the fact remains that part of the reason for taking a degree [for some the only reason] is for the paths it opens in further learning and careers. Getting onto those paths requires another person to process your application and inevitably they may consider not only what your degree subject and grades are but where you took them. And with universities now charging different fees, our approach, whether we like it or not, is now much more consumer oriented – we begin to consider value for money.

Once we discount the intangible [and therefore priceless but unknowable] rewards of university life – social, emotional and intellectual – we are left with the financial rewards.

The BBC analysed research by The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Cambridge University, Harvard University and the Institute of Education, UCL showing the incomes of 260,000 graduates and a very wide spectrum of likely earnings. At the top was a tiny group of universities, headed by, surprise surprise, the London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge. From these institutions, 10% of male graduates earn more than £100,000 a decade after leaving university. The LSE is the only place where 10% of female graduates are also in this top earning bracket. About another 30 or so universities, have 10% of graduates earning above £60,000. And at the bottom are 23 universities where male graduates are likely to end up earning less than non-graduates – nine where that is also the case for women.

However, subject choice is also important. Students taking courses such as medicine, economics, law and maths are likely to be earning much more than the average graduate. And artists are really going to be struggling as they are likely to be earning less than the average non-graduate. So studying maths at a lower university may be better than studying art at a top university, not that this is ever likely to be much of a choice.

However, the combination of these two factors is going to decide the likely financial benefits – the university and choice of subject. But this isn’t all there is to it. Another key finding was that graduates from wealthy families ended up earning more than than those from poorer families, even if they studied the same course at the same university. With more and more people taking degrees it is likely that the stratification we see in society that university used to level out is now continuing through the university years. University has possibly lost its ability to increase social mobility [if that’s what you’re into].

Another factor is the ranking of universities and measuring “outcomes”. Like all rankings these generate self-fulfilling results as people apply to the “best” places which cream off the best students and so get the best rankings and so on. With more people going to university, “which uni?” replaces the previous question “should I go to uni?”

For overseas students, there tend to be two groups. There are those for whom any international university degree will give them massively increased earning potential back home, and others for whom only the best UK institutions will present greater value than attending the best institutions at home. This can be measured both financially and socially. Often, these are interlinked. The UK still has a good presence in the top 100 ranked universities which often matters to employers in emerging economies. However, employers in the UK and other mature economies increasingly react negatively to top-ranked university graduates. They will consider the culture of staff and client that they work with, or they may feel that graduates of a certain school and university combination are too prevalent in their work place already and they look for variety. Many feel that some merit has been lost in university admissions policies or are aware of how much harder it is to access university from overseas or more difficult backgrounds. They increasingly use blind applications so they won’t be prejudiced by school and university backgrounds and look for much more than the standard set of exams, degree grade and internships.

So does it matter? Yes of course but how you determine the answer to that very much depends on your background and what you want to get from your university experience.

Dulwich College Singapore

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