At its recent annual conference in Manchester, the Association of University Administrators debated the question of whether a degree is a sound financial investment.
The implicit assumption behind the question is that a university-level education is only valuable from a consumerist perspective of financial gain. I get why this is the case. Recent policy discussions compel us to accept it as a baseline assumption of universities’ ‘value’.
But for the graduates choosing to gain work experience through voluntary or low-wage positions in a place they’ve aspired to work, or for those outside of employment developing a portfolio and improving their skills, are we telling them that their degree was not worth it because they’re not earning six months after graduating?
The outcomes of studying in higher education are far greater than a simple financial return on investment. My experience of higher education is illustrative of just how beneficial attending university can be beyond gross earnings.
First, a degree can be a means of social mobility. I was born and raised in Manchester by my parents and grandparents, and the idea of going to university was instilled in me as an aspiration from a very early age. Coming from a family where the previous highest education level was GCSE or equivalent, my parents continually reminded me that going to university was the best route to gaining a professional job and succeeding in life.
Many ethnic minority communities see education as a route to improve their social status, for sons and daughters to have better job opportunities than their parents. When my mother was growing up, she knew that her options in life were limited to that of a wife and mother, and this was true of many women across a range of backgrounds. Higher education allows many women today in communities like mine to be the very first generation to go to work. By equipping myself and other women with the tools to find jobs, education allows us to challenge stereotypes and to prove that a woman is not solely limited to the household. She has the option to do either or both!
How do you put a price on that? How can you calculate the value of an education which uproots gender inequalities within a society? To be the first woman to attend a university in my family was something I feel incredibly proud of, pioneering the way for my younger sisters. That’s an incredibly worthwhile investment, regardless of how much I earn in the future.
We continue to fight for equality, diversity and inclusion within universities today: as a Pakistani Muslim woman, it’s unlikely that I would have been invited to contribute to such a debate, had I not attended university.
How can you calculate the monetary value of a more diverse society that has come about by a more diverse higher education system? Professional and highly skilled jobs are far from equal, but they are becoming more diverse as universities do. And the overall value of our cultural life becomes more valuable as a result
Much of what is intangibly valuable about universities can be found in student communities. The 19-year-old me that entered university had no idea she would become president of a students’ union. But getting involved with my SU opened countless doors for me. I have been able to meet new people, engage in debate with a diverse range of views, volunteer for causes I feel passionate about, and represent other students on issues that affected us collectively.
Now the intrinsic benefits of this are two-fold. First, the presence and engagement of students from a more diverse range of backgrounds like me creates change in student communities themselves. No longer are student council meetings held in the bar where some might feel uncomfortable. No longer are activities during freshers’ week centred around going out at night. Our students’ union, over time, has changed to reflect the changes in the characteristics of its members. This progression was no accident; it was a systematic effort from many students who were beginning to enter the higher education community and who wanted more from their union. So not only did we benefit, but the institution also benefitted from students leading those changes.
I was also able to learn skills that weren’t necessarily part of my degree programme, but which proved essential for my personal development. How to campaign, how to organise, how to speak with confidence in a public forum. What’s the financial value of empowering young people like me to aspire to be leaders of tomorrow? How can we measure the impact university life has had on many young people who take positions of leadership in their communities and become active citizens? How can we measure this enrichment of our democratic life?
University is a place where students from a widening participation background can raise their aspirations for their younger generations. It’s a place for critical thinking and debate that allows minds and views to be challenged and for new cultures, faiths or ideas to be explored. And the things you learn outside your course are just as, if not more valuable than the material taught in lecture theatres because those are the skills you need to succeed as a graduate in today’s world.
I fundamentally believe that a degree is a sound financial investment because it’s more than just the price you pay to better your future. That degree is a license for the rest of the drive through life.