Value of Academic Degrees

A study by the Office for National Statistics in 2013 found that, although university graduates are consistently more likely to be employed than other people, they are increasingly likely to be overqualified for the jobs which they do hold. The study also found that the type of degree is significant. On average, medical undergraduates earn the most at £45,600 per year, while media and information studies undergraduates earn the least at £21,000 per year (but have the second highest employment rate, behind only medicine). Finally, the study found that a degree from a Russell Group university is worth almost 25% more on average than a degree from a non-Russell Group university. This can be explained at least in part by the higher proportions of students studying medicine, engineering, and physical or environmental sciences at Russell Group institutes, and their higher entrance requirements selecting these, making them more likely to go on to higher-paid jobs.

A study in 2015 from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit has found that, six months after graduation, the proportion of graduates who are either in full-time employment or studying for an advanced degree ranges from 78.7% for civil engineers to 51.2% for artists. There is also a wide variation in the proportion of graduates who are underemployed. For example, the most common employment fields for civil and mechanical engineers are engineering and construction. On the other hand, the most common workplaces for media studies graduates are shops and restaurants.

A study by the Sutton Trust in 2015 found that, after taking student loan repayments into account, a higher apprenticeship (at level 5 on the Qualifications and Credit Framework, equivalent to a Foundation Degree) delivered higher lifetime earnings on average than a degree from a non-Russell Group university. Despite this, polling for the report found that apprenticeships have a lower perceived value than degrees.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has agreed with other institutions which have found that graduates of professional programs such as medicine, law, maths, business and economics are likely to earn much higher lifetime earnings than graduates of a humanities program such as the creative arts. It also found that there is a wide variation in graduate earnings within subjects, even between graduates from the same institution. A significant cause of this variation is the wealth of graduates' family backgrounds.

The Intergenerational Foundation found in a 2016 paper that the "graduate premium" had fallen to around £100,000 averaged across all subjects, degree classes and universities, although with such a wide variation by subject and institution that it was impossible to quantify in a meaningful way. They argue that the graduate premium has been diluted by the large number of graduates, in particular those with non-vocational degrees from non-elite institutions. Making matters worse, employers have responded to the oversupply of graduates by raising the academic requirements of many occupations higher than is really necessary to perform the work. The study concludes by asking "why bother to study at any other than the top few institutions when a lifetime of debt will be the almost certain consequence? What then of the public good of having a huge range of purely academic courses on offer?" and warning that the proposed deregulation of higher education could result in the growth of low-quality for-profit education as in the US.