Students pose for their official group photograph at the University of Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What is the value of university?

With students paying more than ever, richer data is needed for them to accurately know how much their course will enhance their prospects. 

Gulp. Results day. Thousands of young people will find out for certain, on the back of their A-level grades, which university – if any - they should be spending the best days of their lives at.

Today’s school leavers are luckier in that they have more choice about where they can study, with more higher education institutions and places than ever before. This is in part because this government is allowing universities to expand: 30,000 extra places have been granted for 2014/15, and universities can recruit as many students as they want with grades ABB or above. Clearing – where extra places are available in late August – is no longer for those who don’t get the grades for their first choice; top universities now offer additional places, sometimes eagerly hunted by those with the results to upgrade.

In fact, next autumn, there will be no limit on the number of students universities can admit. Universities are having to do much more to compete with other institutions to attract students. Vice-chancellors are offering scholarships and rent rebates. Free ipads, even. When I was a student, the only free deal we were offered was from banks offering young person's rail cards - mine now lapsed too many years ago.

With fees now usually triple what they used to be, students should be asking: is this really worth it? Well, if you look at the return on investment in general, then yes it is. The latest evidence shows, on average, the premium from a person attending university compared to their peer who didn’t attend but had similar prior attainment is nearly £200,000 over a lifetime. This far exceeds the amount of student loans you need to repay during your lifetime.

But this is an average. More important is whether your particular course is worth it. Now, future salaries are not the only indicator of quality, and the value of education is not just instrumental, but typical salaries are increasingly and understandably a prime consideration for students.

Universities now have to publish Key Information Sets (KISs), which includes data on the salaries of graduates from particular courses. Problem is, this data is very limited. It derives from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) Survey, where the data is collected at six months and just over three years since graduation. Not only are both points of time too early to measure career success - considering further degrees, traveling and career swapping – but the response rate is very low and unrepresentative, especially for the later time point.

New, better data will be available soon, which uses information from HMRC’s PAYE system and the Student Loans Company, matching the majority of students’ salaries at any point in time with their university course and institution. Universities  - in their KISs - should use this richer data on salaries instead.

Nonetheless, even with this more comprehensive information, students will not be able to see what universities are genuinely adding to their future salary prospects. Much of the reported salaries may be to do with factors that are nothing to do with the quality of the student experience offered by an institution. Universities have different entry requirements, so the typical prior attainment of their students varies. Equally, some universities have student cohorts with better job-enhancing networks, or have reputations – possibly dated - that affect employers decision-making. In other words, Oxford University could do very little for their students, but their graduates could still earn a lot in the labour market because they are high ability anyway, are exposed to strong networks, and come from an institution with a tradition of a strong reputation.

That is why the future reporting of average salaries for university courses should be as a premium, measuring against people with similar prior attainment and career destination who did not attend that institution. It would still not show perfectly how institutions are adding to students’ salaries, but it would certainly be a fairer indication than now.

This contextualising of outcomes is also needed for the reporting of degree classifications, usually in league tables, that students obtain. Raw, these results are misleading. The higher proportion of top degrees may be more of a reflection of higher ability students, rather than the quality of teaching at an institution. So, a score is needed which measures how well students progress from A-level to the end of a degree, as the Guardian University guide does. A robust Value-Add score to show how teacher quality affects attainment in different degrees should be in KISs too.

With students paying more than ever, richer data is needed for them to accurately know by just how much their course will enhance their prospects. Then they will be able to assess whether their particular university course really is worth it.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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