What else is in UUK’s “first in family” survey data?

Everything that isn't the first in family report

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

If we are going to see university study as a personal investment – and it seems, as a culture, that this is where we are – we need to be a lot clearer about the long and short term personal benefits on offer.

By this, I don’t just mean salaries. Though there is the opportunity for a clear lifetime earnings benefit for pretty much all graduates (if your immediate response is something about male arts graduates or the public services you would do well to dig a bit deeper into how LEO data is derived), higher education does tend to talk about wider gains too – things like confidence, like personal networks, a more general sense of broader horizons.

To the polls, with confidence

Universities UK’s first in family research (as reported on by Sunday Blake earlier this week) includes a high quality survey, conducted on the sector representative body’s behalf by Censuswide, into the opinions of graduates and non-graduates on this wider set of benefits. Early March saw 6,004 graduates between 24 and 40, alongside 4006 of their non-graduate (strictly speaking, those who have never started a higher education qualification) peers answer questions about their expectations and experiences.

The first headline finding from this is that graduates value the non-salary benefits much more than non-graduates do. Some 37 per cent of graduates cited “greater confidence in their ability” as a key gain, compared to 22 per cent of non-graduates. Likewise, connections to help progress a career is cited by 25 per cent of non-graduates but 38 per cent of graduates.

As a caveat, the question as aimed at graduates asks them to reflect on their initial expectations. For me, this isn’t great question design so I feel justified in reading this as a simple list of key benefits – and it is notable from a following question that 75 per cent of graduates reported a greater confidence, while just 55 per cent reported a higher starting salary than non-graduates. Notably, just 25 per cent of non-graduates felt like they missed out on greater confidence in their abilities having not done a degree – though the biggest loss was perceived to be a higher salary (28 per cent).

Some of this difference can be explained by seeing a degree as a personal achievement, with all of the mindset benefits this entails – 80 per cent of graduates felt proud of their achievement, 74 per cent more encouraged to be ambitious in their professional life (71 per cent in their personal life), and 76 per cent reporting an increase in their self-confidence.

Songs of experience

It’s possible, also, to argue that at least some of this confidence comes from the wider university experience – 85 per cent of graduates would encourage family members to attend university “for social reasons, life experiences, and broadening their horizons”, compared to 28 per cent for non-graduates. Indeed, 23 per cent of non-graduates felt like they missed out on this, while 75 per cent cited a “broader life experience” as a benefit they had gained through study.

To be clear – though this is not visible from the polling – many graduates would have missed out on a different “broader life experience” through their decision to study rather than enter full-time work. One of the very few drawbacks employers cite of graduate employees is a “lack of life experience” so we need to be very careful in our definitions here.

The kind of “experience” enjoyed by graduates seems to link to self-confidence, and this is worthy of further consideration – what is it that graduates are experiencing that is bringing about this shift in confidence. It is, of course, entirely possible that this is an endogenous effect (the kind of people that attend university tend either to have more confidence or be more disposed to become confident – 55 percent of graduates cited their own ambition as a primary reason to apply), but we also have to be alive to the possibility that something good might be happening at university to support this.

We don’t quite get to what this might mean within the survey – though there are a bank of interesting questions posed to graduates about “imposter syndrome” (defined here as “when you doubt your skills and talents or feel like you don’t belong. You might feel like having to be a perfectionist to prove others wrong, you might feel like you need to please others, or you might struggle to be decisive”). We learn that getting on for 61 per cent of graduates had a wobble over their decision to apply because of feelings like these – but what’s really interesting is the bank on what happened in their university experience to help them manage these feelings.

Family values

At the top of the list? Support from family members. Those calls, messages (and, I guess, bank transfers) were cited by 35 per cent of graduates as helping to “overcome imposter syndrome” – higher than other students (30 per cent), staff (28 per cent) or “nothing in particular” (28 per cent) and the most popular reason. Transition or pre-enrolment work, welcome week, and study support sessions barely moved the needle.

And that might be the central message of the study – whether you are first-in-family or not, support from parents, guardians, siblings, and others from the environment in which you grew up is hugely important in building self-esteem. More than a third of non-graduates (36 per cent) when asked how they felt about the first person to attend university in their family said they were “proud”, by far the most popular response. This pride (and the practical support that comes with this) has a huge positive impact that lasts beyond graduation.

And this pride is repaid – 49 per cent described their feelings about their university experience as “proud” (with “sense of achievement” being the only other feeling within touching distance).

There’s other bits in the tables – around mentorship, and the inevitable questions about student finances (we learn, once again, that family contributions are hugely important and that nobody understands the student loan/graduate repayment system), and there are splits available on regional and background axes (which provide evidence of just how proud first of family graduates are of their achievement, as noted in UUK’s main report).

But my big takeaway is that salary differentials – be they initial or lifelong – are more of a concern among those who did not go to university than those who did. There’s implications for the seemingly undead argument that salaries are a measure of the quality or validity of a student experience – but pride and confidence are something that persists beyond salary. An astonishing 44 per cent of graduates earning £15,000 or less a year report being proud of their higher education achievements. And who are any of us to take that away from them?

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