The value of higher education reaches across the generations

Although neither of my parents attended university both were incredibly encouraging and supportive of me and my brothers’ academic pursuits, including higher education. However, when it came to making decisions about what universities to consider and what to study they found it difficult to provide meaningful advice. Helpfully we had older cousins who had started university and could provide this advice.  Our family networks became invaluable in guiding my decision-making.

This personal experience has contributed to my growing concern over the myopic, narrowly-focused assessment of the value of higher education by both policy makers and media outlets in England. Recent reporting on undergraduate “value for money” actively ignores the inter-generational aspect of higher education and university access. That is: participation in higher education increases the likelihood of other family members seeing it as an option.

It is understood that the value of a degree does not, and should not, begin and end with the salary a graduate earns. Universities and university-level graduates contribute to society in many beneficial economic and non-economic ways. However, the value of a degree also  extends to expanding the aspirations of a graduate’s children and grandchildren. Indeed, this was my case as neither of my parents had university experience but one pair of my grandparents did.

This fact is consistently, almost wilfully, ignored by government officials when discussing the benefits of expanding access to university education, including understanding the longitudinal educational outcomes dataset (LEO), the application of the Teaching Excellence Framework and, more recently, the conclusions and the narrowly defined recommendations of the Augar review of post-18 education.

A strange land

Another way of looking at this issue is assessing the “value for money” migrants experience when escaping poor life opportunities in their country of origin for a new country where they do not speak the language or share a cultural heritage. An immigrant’s life will likely be harder. They may not actually enjoy the same quality of life that they experienced in their home country. They move to help ensure their children, and their grandchildren, have a chance at a better life.

As with the immigrant, simplistically assessing the personal value of higher education against a graduate’s income makes sweeping assumptions about the motivations of students to engage with a university rather than another form of tertiary education. For some students, the act of achieving admission to a university is a considerable intergenerational achievement. The social capital developed through experiencing university education, and the opportunities it extends to that student’s family, may be impossible to quantify.

These graduates may not earn as much as graduates from universities predominately admitting students from more privileged backgrounds. It is unlikely that their university experience will overcome generations of accumulated social capital of more privileged students. But introducing policies that inadvertently limit first-in-family university attendance in university, such as curtailing level 3 education in a university environment or seeking to ‘purge’ lower tariff universities with lower graduate income expectations than highly selective institutions, will help ensure these lost students’ children and grandchildren also struggle to secure the social capital that comes so easily to others.

Limiting opportunities for those from under-represented backgrounds, who happen to be over-represented at those universities with lower graduate incomes, is tantamount to promoting those families who have already experienced higher education at the expense of those who have not.

Reducing the value of a student’s higher education experience to their graduate income is a fundamental disservice to that student’s hopes and dreams for future generations.

Join us on 2 July in London for a one day conference to analyse and digest the Augar review and begin to build the response.

2 responses to “The value of higher education reaches across the generations

  1. No informed individual argues against the benefits of university education, particularly for disadvantaged people. The issue here is with universities and the perception that they have not done anything that directly benefits students with the increasing resources they are getting from tuition & other revenue. Universities operate like businesses and their access programs are a function of how much resources they are going to get from any students they admit so let’s not pretend that universities are charities whose only interest is generational mobility for the most disadvantaged in society.

    While most of the comments on the Augar report consider it as the government taking back control, it does not do enough. Instead of allowing universities to have control over their access programs which which results in some doing something & others doing nothing, all universities should have been set quotas for who they admit based on certain socio-economic factors. This handles the problem of Oxbridge being dominated by the rich & say Anglia Ruskin having more disadvantaged students relative to others.

    If universities want to make more money, they should work for it, provide value & justify it. We cannot say because they are a critical sector that they should not be questioned.

  2. Many thanks for your comment, Oladipo. Please excuse my delay in acknowledging your contribution I have been on parental leave and (unsurprisingly) starved of time 🙂

    I certainly appreciate the point you are making. However, I think the central thesis of my argument remains; that the inter-generational benefit of HE participation is missed out by conventional understanding of economic and direct benefits (or perceived lack) of HE to individual students/graduates. While difficult to quantify this benefit it is not impossible. We know that family participation in HE is one of the key indicators of one’s participation in HE and it is not beyond the ability of research to track through an expanding “family tree” of HE participation from one student/graduate (this could potentially include considering those later generations’ careers and/or places of HE study).

    I take your point re particular universities access records, and please accept my apologies if my piece led you or other readers to think it was intended as an apology for poor access attainment. It was really aimed at arguing that those institutions with strong access records – and programmes with large access populations such as Foundation Years – should not be discounted by blinked, narrow benefits analysis.

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