The IFS recently hit the headlines with research suggesting that those who attend university earn a lot more on average than those who do not: 25% more for men and more than 50% for women. The report was timely: with the first findings of the Review into Post-18 Education and Funding due after Christmas, value for money (or more accurately Return on Investment) is hot on the lips of all in the HE sector.
But, as ever, the findings were not entirely straightforward. The data showed that financial returns varied considerably by pre-university characteristics such as wealth, but also by subject and institution choice. Alarmingly, some subjects and institutions actually produced negative financial returns for students.
At a recent ComRes event, we presented research that told a similar story. Our focus groups with young people suggested that they find navigating the options for post-18 education confusing – and the guidance and support on offer is often inadequate.
Four key findings emerged:
1. Choice feels limited and university remains the default.
Young people told us that teachers and schools continue to present university as ‘the only route to success’. Vocational and technical routes still attract considerable stigma, and those selecting them receive less support and guidance than their peers going down traditional academic paths.
2. Post-18 education doesn’t always provide students (or employers) with the skills they need.
Students and graduates often feel university courses don’t give them the skills they need for their chosen career. But, while apprenticeships are seen to offer the opportunity to pick up industry-relevant skills, young people also worry they restrict options by requiring them to specialise earlier.
3. It’s not always clear that HE provides value for money.
Tuition fees and the cost of living are considered by many to be excessive and, especially in an increasingly competitive graduate job market, students are concerned about Return on Investment. While many young people like the idea of ‘earn as you learn’ apprenticeships, they are often put off by the relatively low pay on offer.
4. Access to university is improving, but needs to focus on getting on as well as getting in.
Encouragingly, young people feel that universities are making efforts to widen participation. But many feel that they should also focus on retaining disadvantaged students who often find little support on offer from traditional institutions.
Responding to the findings, panellist and Chair of the Education Select Committee Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP felt the priorities should be clear: radical reform of careers guidance, a more flexible university system and better promotion of apprenticeships to meet skills gaps. However, with the black hole of Brexit sucking up everything in sight (including the Universities Minister), it seems unlikely these will come high on the government’s agenda anytime soon.
But politicians ignore these issues at their peril. As James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, noted, it is education rather than class that is the key dividing line in British politics. As the proportion of the population entering higher education creeps ever upwards, any government that fails to address these concerns is taking a big electoral gamble.