Recent depressing news reports that some graduates from lower performing universities go on to earn less after ten years in work than those who did not go to university at all (Institute of Fiscal Studies). Creative arts and communications studies graduates earned less than those who studied economics and medicine; women earned less than men and graduates from richer backgrounds earned more than those from poorer. LSE, Oxford and Cambridge produced the highest earners. All highly puzzling. The conclusion was drawn that it is sometimes not worth going to university at all, and that the £9000 pa tuition fee may be wasted. Some critics thought that there were too many universities and young people should give serious consideration to whether they should go to university or straight into the labour market.
I have just returned from a large reunion in N. America of Oxford graduates, including many of my own former pupils and contemporaries. So I am in reflective mood about what a university education does for you. My personal experience is Oxford but close friends and family graduated elsewhere. I emphasise two points that are at odds with the purely commercial assessment made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. One is that a university education is not all about earnings later in life – far from it. In many ways earnings are the last factor to consider, albeit that now one has to borrow £9000 to attend, whereas in my time tuition was free and the number of undergraduates was tiny. It is a lifechanging, life enhancing experience, a chance to try out various disciplines, think about ambitions, careers, sample sports, travel, debate and, above all, make friends with fellow students and lecturers. Second, the graduates who go on to make the most money seem to be the ones with flair, persistence, personality and vision, not necessarily the ones with the best degree results. (Not that I would have said this to my students facing exams at the time.) So, yes, it is well worth it, even at £9000 a year: otherwise you will spend the rest of your life wondering what you missed and also realising what you missed.