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.