A level results day has provoked a further continuation of the university bashing of recent weeks, with former Downing Street Advisor and Conservative manifesto author Nick Timothy getting in on the game in the Telegraph.
I won’t get into evaluating all the in’s and out’s of Timothy’s argument. Suffice to say; they broadly follow the line of thinking articulated in his now largely abandoned manifesto, questioning the value of university expansion and beginning with an anecdote about his barber, a ‘football studies’ graduate from Southampton Solent. Beyond these lazy cliches, Timothy is a wonk at heart and is heavily influenced in his thinking here by Professor Alison Wolf, who has rigorously questioned the assumptions upon which market-led and uncontrolled expansion of bachelors programmes have been based.
At the heart of the debate provoked by Wolf and now Timothy is the question of whether unbridled expansion of university courses driven by universities’ willingness to supply, applicants’ willingness to apply, and the government’s willingness to provide funding no matter what, is necessarily an efficient way of allocating our available nation resources for tertiary education. Wolf has made a very sophisticated argument that it is not.
Critical to the debate is the question of graduate destinations and salaries. This is one of the reasons why Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data is so important to the future of the sector, and for many courses it provides. LEO is a big help in answering the question as to whether different courses are ‘worth it’, at least in terms of pure human capital.
How precisely one cuts and interprets LEO data is a complicated methodological problem, one best left to the super-wonks of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and their ilk. I’ve written in detail about all the many many caveats that come with using LEO data before. It is not predictive, nor is it strictly a measure of the graduate premium. LEO carries a long time lag, and the raw data does not control for critically important factors such as prior attainment, social class, and region. The aggregated data (which I use below) masks huge gender pay gaps.
Nonetheless, Timothy’s comment about the football studies graduates from Solent provoked me to go back into LEO to find out whether his anecdote stands up. The answer is: probably not. Depending on whether football studies are classified under ‘mass communications and documentation’, or ‘business and administrative studies’, the median salaries in 2014-15 for those who graduated in these subjects from Southampton Solent University in 2009 were £23,000 and £24,600 respectively. That is significantly above the median salary for all 24-29-year-olds in work in 2014-15 of £20,800. Timothy’s barber appears to have been one of the unlucky ones, or perhaps Solent’s ‘football studies’ course is simply weaker compared to its other business or media studies offerings?
Having higher than non-graduate-average salaries does not necessarily make a bachelors degree ‘worth it’, either to the taxpayer or the graduate. It is difficult to discern whether the salaries commanded by university courses are down to the genuine productivity gains from higher skills developed on these course. Higher salaries could merely be due to the ‘sorting effect’: that graduates of these courses are preferable to non-graduates in-and-of-themselves, regardless of skills developed at university.
How much do graduates of different courses and universities earn?
I don’t think many students receiving their A level results read Wonkhe, but just in case they do, here are two graphs showing how graduate earnings five years after leaving university compare for different courses at different institutions. Crucially, it also shows how they compare to the national median wage for all 24-29 year olds. With creative arts subjects excluded, the graph shows how the overwhelming majority of courses lead to graduates earning more than the national median five years after graduating.
I’ve excluded creative arts subjects from these tables entirely. The challenges for creative arts subjects and graduate salaries have been well covered by Andrew McGettigan here.
The colour scheme for each data point incorporates the prior attainment data included in the LEO release by DfE. Broadly speaking, ‘1’ means a high entry tariff, ‘2’ a middle entry tariff, and ‘3’ a low entry tariff. Blue data points are those where the prior attainment data was not captured by LEO.
If you’ve decided on a broad subject area, this graph shows graduate salaries for different universities in each subject. You can highlight different universities and discern by prior attainment. For example, for applicants with lower attainment, the highest earning courses include social studies at Hertfordshire, engineering at Harper Adams, and nursing at Greenwich.
Alternatively, you can compare subjects within institutions, and institutions with each other, with this chart. This is a bit harder to navigate and is worth doing so in full screen. Note how there are no universities where all courses find themselves below our benchmark median salary.