Time well spent? The difference between ‘value’ and values in the HE student experience

Blog posts

5 Mar 2020

Becci Newton

Becci Newton, Deputy Director, Public Policy Research

Follow @beccinewton13

The latest Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) output on economic outcomes of higher education did not feel like ‘new’ news. Their findings show that approximately a fifth of graduates now lose money as a result of choosing to undertake higher education (HE) studies and from the economic returns perspective would be better off if they had not progressed to HE and accrued the associated costs. In black and white terms this adds to the policy agenda, but in terms of the prevailing narrative of different occupational outcomes over many years is not surprising.

We have known for a long time that not all HE studies generate the same pay outcomes, but does that undermine their value? It again raises the question about what HE is for, what we value and how we measure success. More widely we should question what we as a society value – just because some jobs pay less does not mean they have less value; instead their social value can be paramount and a facilitator of public good. Moreover, economic returns are influenced by pay inequalities in the labour market and regional disparities.

The IFS absolutely recognise there are other returns to HE studies that their research cannot capture. But economic costs and returns dominate the agenda, and with the introduction of fees up to £9,000, the narrative is switching to students being consumers of HE rather than participants in expansive educational experiences.

The duration spent in full-time HE particularly can be hugely rewarding at a social level that will not show up in the economic data. Social networks are formed, thinking and practice are developed and ways of living and understanding each other are experimented with – the benefits of this can have long lasting effects.

While the policy drive towards 50 per cent participation in HE lingers from the days of the Blair administration, the social outcomes appear to being lost in favour of a narrative focused on economic returns, and funding. Are we losing sight of the many other benefits that HE can confer as we attempt to move to a high skills economy?

The analysis also highlights the differential economic out-turns for men and women, with men likely to realise better returns in the labour market. Certainly this latter point is not news, and there are factors including subject and occupation-choice driving differences; but notably in the same subjects and occupations women experience returns that are not as good as men’s.

The root of this therefore does not simply lie in the HE choice but in the labour market and employers’ decisions around pay and flexibility. The study highlights this effect occurring for ‘many’ women as a result of having children – but the effect persists for those who are not mothers and this deserves further discussion. It hints that despite women returning to the labour market when they’re ready, or importantly not leaving in the first place, their chances of achieving the same outcomes are not the same as men’s.  

We need to avoid homogeneous descriptions of women – and people - when lives and identities are varied and complex and where decisions are made at the household rather than individual level. These scenarios are not so easily summarised as it is harder to find the factors that explain them within the hard data. It raises the question of how we can better measure the range of returns rather than simply focusing on the economic.

Nonetheless, we know that women returners generally are less likely to achieve pay increases than male returners – as our review for GEO demonstrated – there are trade-offs made at the household level but for women with care responsibilities the period spent caring coupled with differential labour market drivers and valuations, means that women are less able to grow their pay and pension pots; so the consequences are substantial.

As our understanding of gender and identity, alongside skills demands and supply in the labour market, becomes more complex, our need to capture the differential factors underpinning labour market transitions and progression – alongside social contribution - is ever more urgent.

The IFS recognises there are other returns to higher education than simply those that are economic. While 20 per cent of graduates will not realise full economic returns does that mean their study is not worthwhile? Is it timely to reconsider our conceptualisation of HE returns?

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.