Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Longitudinal Earnings Outcomes are important - but students want to change their lives, not just their salaries

People working in low-paid jobs want more than just a pay rise from a degree

The release of the Longitudinal Earnings Outcomes (LEO) always tends to cause groans and head-scratching among some academics.  The picture presented is a familiar one: Graduates who go for degrees in Business or Economics are more likely to earn bucket-loads, while those who go for Sociology will be - quite assuredly - not.  Those who teach courses on the lower-paid half of the scale suddenly begin to fear their courses will be closed down as a consequence.

The problem is that when data like this is reported, it encourages us to think that salaries are more important to students than things like job security or job satisfaction - and this idea, I fear, is misleading.

Of course the data from the LEO is complicated, and there are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration if we want to understand that data more soundly.  Readers of WonkHE will likely know about these factors if they have read the excellent article from Harriet Barnes or from Andrew McGettigan.  These articles explain the data in important ways - but there is something else that niggles at me about all this.

Anyone who has been working in Higher Education for any length of time will have seen the increasing extent to which provision has become increasingly focused on market value.  It was, of course, an inevitable and predictable outcome of the introduction  of tuition fees: If students are going to be paying for their education, then Universities need to do more to ensure they are getting their money's worth.

Yes, it is important that Universities are held accountable for the experience students have.  If students are paying thousands of pounds to the University, it is simply not fair for Universities to use that money for shoring up all-expenses-paid research trips and speaking tours while fobbing those students off with minimal resources or tuition.  And yes, it is important that students know the value of what they are buying: The likely financial return they going to get from their investment.

But aren't there other reasons why people want to do a degree?

Throughout my teaching experience, I have been working alongside students that are often called 'non-traditional' - a phrase which has been becoming increasingly obsolete since 1992, and might today be more accurately called 'non-bourgeois'.  When I talked to these students about why they were studying, and what their goals were, the issue of pay would often come up - but over and over again the idea of a well-paid job was contextualised in important ways.  The reason they wanted a well-paid job was not because of the money alone, but because it was associated with job security, and job satisfaction.

My students were often people who had been working for a number of years in low-paid jobs that they disliked, where they were often treated poorly, and where they were generally viewed as completely expendable.  They looked up at people with jobs that were better paid yes, but they wanted more than that.  They wanted respect, and they wanted to be inspired and energised by their work.

The most common reason I heard from students about why they were doing a degree, was that they hoped it would change their lives.  They wanted to change their lives, not just their salaries.

Pay is certainly a part of that, but where is the data on job security and job satisfaction?  Where is the data on which courses are the most effective in changing lives?  Of course these are more difficult areas to quantify, but the exclusive focus on graduate pay as the basis for valuing Higher Education is, I fear, dangerously reductive.

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