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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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.