Value of Academic Degrees for Higher Education in the United Kingdom

A study by the Sutton Trust in 2015 found that, after taking student loan repayments into account, a higher apprenticeship (at level 5 in the national qualifications frameworks) 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. One reason for this variation is the wealth of graduates' family backgrounds, but subject and institution choice as well as prior education attainment level can be a more significant determinant.

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?" The paper then issued a warning that the proposed deregulation of higher education could result in the growth of low-quality for-profit education as in the US.

A 2017 study by the Department for Education found that the median annual earnings of university graduates, five years into their careers, ranged from £20,000 in the creative arts and design to £47,000 in medicine and dentistry.

A 2017 study by the Office for National Statistics found that, although university graduates are consistently more likely to be employed than non-graduates, they are increasingly likely to be overqualified for the jobs which they do hold. In peak earning years, a university graduate will earn an average of £36,000 per year, an apprentice will earn £30,000 per year, an A-level graduate will earn £24,000 per year, while someone without an A-level will earn £20,000 per year. Breaking down the university degrees into separate professions, undergraduates in engineering or medicine earn the most at £44,500 per year, while undergraduates in the arts earn the least at £20,700 per year. Finally, Russell Group graduates hold 61% of all jobs that require a university degree, despite being only 17% of all higher education graduates.

In a 2018 study, the National Audit Office reported that, although some progress has been made in increasing STEM subject enrollment since 2011, the progress does not match labour market demand. For example, too many students are seeking a degree in the biological sciences, while the shortage in STEM apprentices has seen little improvement. In particular, women have shown scant interest in acquiring high-demand skills such as a computer science degree.

A study in 2018 from the Higher Education Careers Service Unit has found a wide range, six months after acquiring their first degree, in the proportion of graduates who are either in full-time employment or studying for an advanced degree. There is also a wide range in the proportion of these graduates who are employed in occupations such as cashier or waiter. The following table shows selected data from this study.