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Graduates getting “paltry returns” for degrees, says leading committee

UK students are building up tens of thousands of pounds in debt, but is the education you're receiving worth it?

is a degree worth it

Graduates are not receiving adequate returns for their degrees given the amount of debt they are building, according to a parliamentary committee.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, told the Centre for Social Justice think tank that today’s graduates are only getting “paltry returns” for the years of training they are undertaking.

Between a fifth and a third of graduates take on non-graduate jobs (jobs which do not require a degree), despite wracking up an average of £50,000 in debt by attending university.

Mr Halfon added that any extra returns for having a degree “vary wildly” depending on the subject, university, and individual’s choices, and that too many people are choosing to study academic degrees.

University leaders, however, maintain that “a degree continues to be an excellent investment”.

Is academia out?

are academic degrees worth it

In his speech, Mr Halfon argued:

[The UK has] become obsessed with full academic degrees… while intermediate and higher technical offerings are comparatively tiny.

The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees.

However, a Department for Education spokesman said:

The government wants everyone to be equipped with the skills they need to get on in life and succeed in the jobs of the future.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), recognised that we cannot solely measure success by graduate salaries. Some universities specialise in subjects like creative arts and nursing, which despite providing invaluable services to our country, generally lead to lower paid jobs.

However, the UUK representative did highlight the fact that according to official figures, university graduates will earn significantly more on average than non-graduates.

Calls for funding cuts

cuts to university funding

Mr Halfon said that this overwhelming focus on academic courses is causing a skills shortage in the UK. His suggestion was to cut funding for universities because they have failed to provide enough technical training.

The Education Committee chair called for a radical “rebalancing” of the whole higher education system to address the needs of both students and employers.

Mr Halfon said:

[The UK] places far too much emphasis on research excellence, and not enough on teaching quality and employability.

The government would appear to agree with him, having recently launched the Teaching Excellence Framework. This new ranking is intended to rank universities based on their teaching standards, and when assessed on this alone, many Russell Group universities did not come out on top.

In fact, of the 59 higher education institutions that received a gold rating, 51 were not part of the Russell Group.

The Economist’s “value added” ranking supports this. It compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to university, and the list was topped by Portsmouth University and Aston University, neither of which are in the Russell Group.

Mr Halfon said:

While some Russell Group universities deserve their recognition as elite institutions, others appear to trade well on their brands, while their less reputable counterparts remain unrecognised.

Do we need an alternative to degrees?

alternatives to degrees apprenticeships

Mr Halfon proposed a major expansion of degree apprenticeships, where students can earn as they learn and get on the career ladder much earlier in life without incurring “mountains of debt”.

He added that universities that are not providing a good return on academic courses should reinvent themselves as centres of technical excellence.

This comes at a time when there is growing concern about the debt students are accumulating, and in response to the speech, the government reaffirmed its promised to review higher education funding in England.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said legislation had been introduced to reform higher education. It aimed to ensure both the student and taxpayer got value for money.

Is university worth it?

is university worth it

Credit: Nickelodeon

Making the choice to go to university should be yours, and yours alone. For many people, university is hugely beneficial to both their career and their personal development, and sometimes you can’t pursue the career you want without going.

However, it's very important to take time over your decision, know all the facts, and consider alternatives to university too.

Popular alternatives include going to college, doing a vocational qualification, or going straight into a job or apprenticeship – all of which are equally valid ways of embarking on the future you want.

You should also consider that there are alternative ways of getting a degree that don’t involve physically attending university, and therefore not building up as much debt. Some apprenticeships will pay for you to study part time for a relevant degree, or you could choose to study for a part-time or distance degree while working.

If you decide that university is the route for you, make sure you consider everything before choosing where to go, like how much it will cost, whether your course is well-rated, and how helpful your university will be in supporting your job search afterwards.

And despite Mr Halfon’s opinion, you shouldn't necessarily let the debt put you off. We're fully in favour of reducing tuition fees and improving support for living costs, but the suggestion that student debt is unmanageable is just one of the many tuition fee myths!

Worried about life after uni? Check out our comprehensive guide to graduate schemes!

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