Why your degree is worth so much more than employability
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Even though many students go to university with the specific end goal of becoming more employable, that isn't the only way in which university improves students. On 24 July 2018, I graduated from King’s College London, with a decent 2:1. At that point, I had spent almost 3 years away from my home country, Singapore and made life-changing friends from all over the world. I had also become passionately involved in the student movement, being elected Vice-President Welfare and Community at my Students’ Union, extending my stay at King’s for a year. (This article is my opinion, and does not represent the views of KCLSU.) As I walked on stage to receive my “degree”, which was actually just a scroll with a letter from the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, it didn’t feel as significant as I’d thought it would. It felt, somehow, anti-climactic. For many students, however, graduation is both a time of celebration and a time of great uncertainty; It’s their first step into the “grown-up world”. It’s time to find a job, join the rat race, and try to pay off the almost £51,000 in debt the average student picks up during their time at university. With costs rising and universities expanding, some question the value of a degree. Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has proposed a MoneySuperMarket-style comparison platform, which would let students see if their degree would be “worth it”. The platform would include graduate salaries and employment data, alongside other information. Based on a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, it appears that certain courses, and certain universities, produce “better” graduate outcomes with graduates from those courses or universities earning more their peers. So far Minister Sam looks like he might be right, but there’s a catch. As the IFS’s researchers point out at every opportunity, graduate salary outcomes reflect the decisions students and employers make, not the quality of their degrees. Students with better social and emotional skills, or a preference for certain higher-paying careers, may choose to take a certain subject or go to a certain university. Better-paying employers, on the other hand, might choose to hire or promote one graduate over another graduate of equal skill, simply because of the reputation of the university they went to. Such unmeasurable factors mean that how much graduates earn, and how likely they are to be employed, are irrelevant to the actual quality of a university or a degree. Judging the quality of an education on graduate outcomes, then, is basically lying to the unfortunate students who have to use this platform. However, even if the data did reflect these unmeasurable factors, measuring the value of a degree by its financial benefits is still problematic. Arts and humanities degrees like Philosophy or History might not be the most employable or highest-paying degrees. However, the experience of studying a degree is valuable by itself; education develops a student as a person, and not just as a worker for the job market. This is something that can’t be measured in numbers alone. At the same time, students and politicians are right to be concerned about value for money with around three-quarters of students never paying off their student loans in full, despite making payments well into their 50s. That’s a huge write-off.
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