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Graduates value higher education

26 February 2004 - 400,000 students are entering higher education each year - and most pay fees. What value do they place on the experience? Next Choices: Career Choices Beyond University, a report from the independent Institute for Employment Studies, shows that most graduates think it was worthwhile.

Richard Pearson, Director, IES said:

‘This new research shows that the majority of applicants from 1998 (the first to pay tuition fees), felt that they had made the right choices, and that the benefits of higher education had outweighed the costs. Nevertheless, much could be done to support and improve the decision making of future applicants.

‘The most satisfied tended to be traditional graduates, who had completed their studies with good results, and were mobile in the national labour market; and those who were now in good jobs. The least satisfied were those who gained a lower class of degree, or who failed to complete, or were in lower-paid, lower-level occupations, and those who returned to home after their studies.’

The report analyses the experiences of 1,500 people who applied to enter higher education in 1998 and were surveyed (for a third time) in 2003 about their choices and experiences up to two years after graduation.  In general, they painted a very positive picture of their choices and experiences in and after higher education. Most felt that HE had helped with future prospects. Despite the fact that many had left with considerable levels of debt, the vast majority felt that the benefits of HE (now and in the future) outweighed the costs. But they would have appreciated more advice on the nature and financing of the costs. Traditional graduates - those who were younger, white, and middle class - tended to have the best outcomes. Conversely, people from less traditional backgrounds:

- achieved lower results
- were more likely to have weaker job market outcomes - and were more likely also to have lower satisfaction

A small number of students left their course early. But most early leavers still had a positive view about the value of their time in higher education. Some left HE for good, but others immediately changed their course and/or institution, or returned after a short break. Early leavers came from diverse backgrounds and had various reasons for leaving.

According to IES, younger leavers felt they had often made hasty or ill-informed choices, and looking back realised they did not really know what they wanted from their higher education; the move to HE was just the next step on the ‘education conveyor belt’. More mature leavers, the report says, recognised their circumstances often limited their choices, presenting an obstacle course for getting into and through higher education. Few leavers looked for advice about the decision to leave, or about subsequent choices. But many returned to HE, often after a period of employment, or while they worked.

Most students also worked during their period of study, either in vacation or term time. In fact, 42% worked regularly during term time. According to project leader, Emma Pollard, IES Research Fellow:

‘Those regularly working during term time (controlling for a range of personal and educational variables) were less likely to gain a good degree. This is a concern, as those from lower socio-economic groups, from families with lower income, and from minority groups were more likely to work during term time.

‘Costs were a significant issue for many. The average level of debt on completion was almost £10,000. The highest debt was for those from less privileged backgrounds (ie low family income) and those who studied away from home.’

Half the people surveyed had not been involved in any further study since they graduated or left HE. People least likely to be involved in further study were:

- male;
- from families with high incomes;
- had studied vocational subjects; or
- or were from post-92 institutions.

The report indicates that many were in poor quality jobs. Of those engaging in further study, half were on full-time MSc, PhD or diploma courses. The others were mostly studying on short courses while working, or working towards professional qualifications.

Of the people involved in further study, half were on full-time MSc, PhD or diploma courses. The remainder were mostly engaged in short courses while working, or working towards professional qualifications.

Next Choices: Career Choices Beyond University, E Pollard, R Pearson, R Willison. IES Report 405. ISBN 1851843345, priced at £35.00, is available from The Institute of Employment Studies

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