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August 23, 2007

Boris on Degrees

It's an interesting argument and one that is even valid: if it weren't for one bothersome fact:

But the final judge of the value of a degree is the market, and in spite of all the expansion it is still the case that university graduates have a big salary premium over non-graduates.

This is true of some (many? Most?) degrees, but not of all. From the same paper (although rather older edition) that Boris is writing for:

Subject choice is crucial. Other things being equal, the rates of return to maths and computing, engineering and technological subjects and medicine (the "hard" subjects) are, unsurprisingly, robustly positive. Other choices are less remunerative and, in the case of arts degrees for men and after allowing for the new £3,000 level of tuition fees, the calculated average rate of return is actually negative.

August 23, 2007 in Academia | Permalink


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He is right in the wider point that we mock in ignorance. How people look at the title "artificial intelligence" and sneer without bothering to inquire exactly what this is.

I am reminded of the Tory party conference where they were scathing about local authority funding for the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre, thinking it taught hopscotch. The then minister-without-portfolio was the minister for egg on his face when he had to publicly apologise for traducing the charity for homeless Bangladeshi women.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Aug 23, 2007 9:38:48 AM

Whisper it only but according to this recent news report from The Times for 14 August, economists have continued to do impressively well in the graduate pay stakes by subject - as I mentioned before - and rated fourth from the top in this league table after Medicine, Dentistry, and General Engineering:

Curiously, few commentators on graduate pay mention how well economists rate in the pay league tables - but then perhaps they graduated in weird subjects like the dead languages.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 23, 2007 10:18:58 AM

You are all incredibly clever, you proles with your degrees in media studies and homeopathic medicine.Please vote for Boris.

Posted by: james C | Aug 23, 2007 12:27:51 PM

Simple solution - make students pay for their degrees themselves.
Then if they are worth the money they will be taken, otherwise they will not be.

Posted by: Tristan Mills | Aug 23, 2007 12:55:31 PM

I thought that tuition fees + top-up fees for most arts/humanities subjects at most non-elite (say, non-Russell-group) universities *were* roughly equal to the cost to the institution of provision...?

Posted by: john b | Aug 23, 2007 1:10:46 PM

I thought the graduate premium, across the board has been decreasing for the past decade, apart from vocational subjects like IT, law, accountancy and medicine

Posted by: Matt Munro | Aug 23, 2007 1:23:38 PM

The problem here is a lot of degrees that people consider to be "non-degrees" are actually vocational and in response to industry desires.

A lot of people (particularly on the right) are guilty of demanding more vocational education and then ridiculing it in practice, partly, I would suggest, because they have a sort of 1920s image of what jobs there are in the economy.

One criticism that might have some validity is that such vocational degrees shouldn't have degree status, although I can't really imagine anyone believing that a degree in maths from say York was worse merely because one can get a degree in golf course management.

Posted by: Matthew | Aug 23, 2007 1:53:47 PM

On the shrinking premium in graduate pay in Britain, the definitive study is by Professor Peter Sloane and Dr Nigel O'Leary, published in 2005. Unfortunately, online access to the full study seems to be restricted but according to the report on the BBC website:

"Graduates can expect to earn £150,000 more over their lifetimes than those with just A-levels - £250,000 less than previously estimated - a report says.

"Economists at Swansea University said some subjects - such as the arts - could even mean losses, when fees and living costs are taken into account.

"The report, based on the British Labour Survey, blames the increase in student numbers for narrowing the earnings gap. . . "

Various studies and surveys all report that economists tend to feature high in graduate earnings league tables. According the recent report in The Times, the average earnings of economists rate well above Computer Science graduates:

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 23, 2007 2:01:58 PM


A report this year on: The Economic Benefits of a Degree, by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, makes the point that the extent of the premium in lifetime earnings for graduates depends on the degree subject and that the average premium may be very meagre for humanities and arts subjects, which probably accounts for much of Boris's personal worries about the increasing numbers of graduates with strange degrees in dead languages:

"There is currently wide variation in the gross additional lifetime earnings of different degree subjects. For example, the lifetime earnings premium is £340,000 for medicine and dentistry qualifications compared with £51,549 for the humanities and £34,949 for the arts."

Btw Chart 1 in the report is again encouraging about earnings prospects for graduates with economics degrees.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 23, 2007 3:15:40 PM

Matthew: the right has no problem with there being vocational courses, and in most cases don't have a 1920's image of the job market. In fact, one left-wing guy I know is always going on about how the state should step in and make people do more hard science subjects; it's he who doesn't understand the job market.

The problem is with them being given University status. We were happy when they were part of polytechnics.

Also, we don't want to subsidize such courses, however valuable they really are. The original rationale for subsidizing Universities was that they were high-minded places where serious scholarship went on, but a degree in hairdressing isn't that. If you want to do such a course, pay for it yourself.

Another problem is that Mickey Mouse courses do devalue other subjects. Sure, a Physics or Maths degree from a good University is still going to be clearly good to outsiders (which is why you conveniently chose such a degree), but a lot of other courses are becoming blurred together in the public's eye.

Posted by: Smidgeon | Aug 23, 2007 6:35:11 PM

Have a care chaps. I don't know the current state of play, but for many years physics graduates often ended up as amateur electrical engineers or amateur aeronautical engineers. Or, fate worse than death, as research students.

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 23, 2007 8:52:27 PM

Do classics degrees count as mickey mouse degrees nowadays? I mean, what earthly use are degrees in dead languages and why should taxpayers subsidise such degrees?

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 23, 2007 9:25:29 PM

Bob's comment above annoyed me so much that I turned it into an article:

Posted by: john b | Aug 23, 2007 10:52:15 PM

It was specifically intended to annoy so I'm pleased it succeeded.

I grew up listening to endless repetitions of the spurious claim that studying "the classics" provides some uniquely special way of instilling mental discipline and building character.

Later, much later, I came upon GE Moore's celebrated refutation of Hegalian idealism - there is simply no reason for accepting what it contends.

Much the same applies to the claims made for the unique benefits of "a classical education". There are many other degree subjects - including physics, maths, economics, law or philosophical analysis - which provide at least as good an experience of mental discipline. Most of them are also a great deal more relevant in today's world than studying dead languages and the histories of ancient Greece and Rome.

It ill becomes those who graduate in the classics to then extoll - as did Enoch Powell - the supposedly greater benefits of a market economy with minimalist regulation since, by the test of the market, relatively little value is attributed to classics degrees.

QED, I think.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 23, 2007 11:37:37 PM

I don't think the PwC study broke out classics degrees separately, because they're relatively rare, but based on the sample of people I know I'd be amazed to discover that classics graduates weren't largely high-earners.

Posted by: john b | Aug 24, 2007 11:48:50 AM