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The value of a university education

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell

How should the value of a university degree be measured? There has been a great deal of public discussion about this of late – so much so that the Financial Times asked me to give my thoughts on the debate (There is more to university than money, FT, 16 April).

I argued that employability and future earnings are undoubtedly important for any student entering higher education today. How could they not be? Students pay fees of £9,000 a year and many graduate with significant debt. But I also expressed concern that by focusing so much on money, the conversation misses the much wider value of a university education.

The recent flurry of interest has been provoked by a study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that reported that graduates from one in ten UK universities earn less than non-graduates. Of course, if, after several years of study and with major debt, these graduates unexpectedly find themselves unable to find employment, particularly of the type that they had hoped for, then this is a major concern.

The IFS report is revealing, but it doesn't paint a whole picture. It doesn't name the universities in question, and so we're told nothing about what they offer. Some could, for example, be specialist arts institutions. We know that, perhaps unfairly, artistic performers are paid very little – especially at the start of their careers.

Nor does the study account for the choices graduates may make. Some choose to enter low-paid professions to follow their passion, for example in social or voluntary work, or sport. Others may decide to work part-time – for a whole variety of reasons. Universities are encouraged to support entrepreneurs, who may go on to run their own companies, but they will normally pay themselves very little while starting up.

Getting a good job is an important reason given by many who choose to go to university, and we can be proud that at The University of Manchester we have a strong record of graduate employment. According to the latest data, 84% of our employed graduates are in 'graduate jobs' six months after completing their degrees and 94% of graduates overall go straight into jobs or further study. But figures such as these shouldn't be the sole measure of a Manchester degree's worth.

A student who chooses Manchester joins a community drawn from 160 countries – it's a meeting place for different backgrounds, religions and beliefs. Once here, they have fantastic opportunities to participate in sport, join numerous societies offered by our Students' Union, volunteer through the Manchester Leadership Programme or take course units outside their subject in our University College for Interdisciplinary Learning. They can learn about enterprise, hear a world-leading academic give a seminar or undertake a research project in outstanding facilities.

Their views and beliefs may be challenged. They will make new friends – maybe even meet their lifelong partner. Many of the 330,000+ alumni that we are in contact with worldwide tell us that they gained value from their time at Manchester beyond their academic training and formal qualifications. My piece for the FT sparked a lot of responses but, for me, one comment on Twitter stood out: "Going to university should teach you how to make a life, not just a living".

It is important that we ensure that our prospective and current students are aware of the breadth of experiences available to them. We should encourage them to grasp as many of these opportunities as possible.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell - President and Vice-Chancellor

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