One in five students loses money by going to university, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown. 

Around 20% of former university students earn less than their peers with similar school results who did not attend university, highlighting how the completion of a degree course has a negative financial impact for a small, but nevertheless significant, proportion of students.

These findings have caused a considerable media furore, and understandably so. Higher education has expanded exponentially since 2015, when the cap on the number of UK university places was lifted. Surveys have shown that UK students often feel pushed towards university, and feel that they are not properly exposed to alternative routes such as apprenticeships or trainee programmes. With higher education the dominant narrative for success, the fact that its returns can be somewhat lacking is concerning to many who have believed in it for so long.

But what much of the media attention – and indeed the very way the results of this study have been framed – shows is that university is seen as a means to an end. When university graduates earn less than their non-university educated peers, this is posited as a poor return on the act of getting a degree. When graduates’ bank balances falter, that is seen as a failure of their degree to come good. 

But this then begs the question of why university education has been put on a pedestal for so long, when we know perfectly well that year on year, graduates struggle to get graduate-level jobs after leaving university. And the mismatch in the number of graduate jobs and graduates looks set to worsen, as the growth in the number of entry-level positions stagnates. 

But this isn’t just a question of university being wrongly lauded. This is a broader issue of what we prioritise in society, and the myths that we associate with what we favour. University is almost certainly seen as a means to conventional ‘success’, in the form of a higher income and professional job. In most cases, a university education does lead to those things. But in some instances, the benefit of university education with regards to income and career can be marginal. Thus, valuing university attendance purely for a hypothetical (and sometimes unrealistic) end result is not only misguided, but causes us to undervalue the plethora of other benefits university can offer, at the expense of chasing a financial dream.

This is not to say that university should simply be placed on a pedestal for different reasons – far from it. University is not for everyone – and it really shouldn’t have to be. It has been falsely overvalued for too long. Once the preserve of a privileged and moneyed elite, the underlying message behind the expansion of higher education is that this privilege will somehow, miraculously be conferred upon all university attendees.

University should not be valued for outcomes of social status and income. Yes, people pay a lot to attend (and whether this is right is another debate) but the logic that paying your way through something should yield results can and should only hold true in corrupt systems. University is valuable for many things: the life lessons it confers; the way it teaches students new and varied ways of working and its perpetuation of important academic disciplines. University should be a place where students learn, and are ultimately satisfied by the learning and the process behind it. 

And if the rest of society was truly structured around learning and fulfilment, we would not be talking about university solely in terms of earnings. If we instead saw success as a combination of fulfilment, development and happiness, money would still be important – but it would not determine whether an individual’s university education was ‘valuable’ or not. A fullfillment-centric society would instead look at what else a university education did for an individual, and determine its worth from that. 

But while society continues to be structured around a false paradigm that money equals success, education will only ever be measured in terms of any financial gain it confers on those who experience it. And unfortunately, university will continue to be presented as the most credible route to this financial gain. Because despite the fact that university may not be advantageous for some, it is still a place which is largely dominated by students who bring pre-existing privilege along with them. 70% of students at nearly every Russell Group university are middle class. And with UK social mobility in dire straits, those middle class students are likely to stay middle class and privileged, while their poorer peers face barriers to advancement. 

Thus the myth that university reaps financial rewards is simply a construct which keeps alive a sense that a legitimate route exists to afford riches to all – if they simply work hard enough. But no such route exists; university may not be as exclusive as it once was, but is an overwhelmingly middle class arena that serves the purpose of speciously justifying the continuation of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy. 

This can only be stopped when society at large learns to place other things – time, wellbeing, family and community – at its core. Not only will this change the way we talk about university, but it will change our attitudes towards wealth, perhaps making happiness the new currency of success, and money a mere subordinate part of that. 

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