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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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.