In Depth

The pros and cons of ranking universities by graduate earnings

New government plans are rubbished by higher education experts

Government proposals to introduce rankings for universities based on graduate earnings have been criticised by leading academics.

Ministers are planning to introduce an Ofsted-style rating system, with graduate earnings expected to be the way courses are judged, The Guardian reports.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, said scrutiny of low-performing courses was a good thing, but graduate earnings should not be the main measure of performance.

“When Ofsted goes into a school it judges whether it is a good or bad school based on what is happening there,” Hillman said. “It doesn’t say ‘we think this is a bad school because kids who have been here in the past have got bad jobs’. That is how universities will be judged.”

So what are the other pros and cons of ranking universities by graduate earnings?

Pros

Bang for government buck

The government argues that the investment it makes in education means it has a responsibility to see funding used “efficiently”.

“The government subsidises around 50% of the cost of higher education and it is only fair that this funding is used as efficiently as possible, so students can be confident they are getting good value for money,” said a Department for Education spokesperson.

They said the education secretary will support the Office for Students “using its powers” where providers are not deemed to be offering value for money.

Graduates care about salaries

While not everyone makes future earnings their top priority, a sizeable chunk of prospective students consider the money they’ll make back on investing in a degree.

According to ComRes/Universities UK polling in September last year, 42% of students said earning potential and financial benefits was their top motivation for a career.

Cons

Damage to arts and humanities 

Graduates from arts and humanities subjects typically go into jobs with lower starting salaries than those who study disciplines such as medicine or law.

This has prompted concern from higher education experts, who worry that universities that specialise in arts and humanities subjects could be ranked as needing improvement. Students could be discouraged from taking those courses, and universities could be reluctant to invest in them.

Professor Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University in Birmingham, says: “Salary is evidence of things, including where you live, what sector you’re in, and what sort of job you are pursuing. We should push back against the idea that a good salary is an adequate measure of how much a job matters to society.”

Regional universities suffer

Universities outside London that produce graduates who stay in the area and work locally, rather than moving to the capital for a higher salary, will receive a poorer rating than their London counterparts.

The average graduate starting salary in London is £24,991, compared to £20,600 in Wales, says graduate market analysts Luminate.

Loans

Universities are concerned that the government could refuse to provide student loans for “low-quality” courses, and threaten universities with removal from the Office for Students’ register if they don’t improve, says the Guardian.

The head of a leading research university told the paper: “There are deep issues that we need to confront. Do we really want a world where creative courses have no student loans?”

Salary isn’t key for students

Only one in three (34%) students and recent graduates say they decided to go to university to get a higher salary than they otherwise would have, says ComRes.

And eight out of ten (79%) think the government should do more to promote the broader benefits of a degree or university education, irrespective of potential salary.

More than four in five (84%) say that future salary is not the only factor prospective university students consider when deciding to attend.

Ignores wellbeing

Professor Julia Buckingham, head of Brunel University London and president of Universities UK, says that measuring universities on graduate salaries alone ignores the importance of wellbeing, personal development, diversity and civic responsibilities, which are all important considerations for today’s graduates.

Buckingham will announce in a speech later today that university vice-chancellors are designing an alternative ranking system for universities that will take into account a range of measures beyond salaries. These will include numbers of graduates who become entrepreneurs, or go on to work in essential public services such as teaching or the NHS.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We completely recognise the wide range of benefits a degree can bring, including those with a high social value.

“We publish a wide range of data to empower students to make the best choice when deciding what to study. This includes future earnings among the wider benefits of going to university for students and society as a whole.”

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