University is much more worthwhile if you’re a woman – but that’s not actually a good thing

Since tuition fees were hiked up to a stinging £9,000 a year, much work has been put into analysing the value of a British degree. Given that the average undergraduate leaves their three-year programme in possession of a 2:1 degree and a debt of approximately £50,000, these studies attempt to answer the question of whether a degree is still worth the investment of both time and, more significantly, cash that young students put in. Will they, in short, pay off in better job prospects and higher lifetime earnings?

The latest number-crunching, carried out by the Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, presents no straightforward answer. Inevitably, it reveals that some elite universities confer a salary premium while others may in fact have the opposite effect. More interestingly, this effect depends on whether you are a man or a woman.

Although there are a handful of universities that are leaving their male graduates in a worse position in terms of earning prospects at age 29, the broader picture demonstrates that university is a much wiser investment for young women than men.

Women with a degree, it is revealed, earn 28 per cent more than non-graduate women. Men with degrees can only expect an 8 per cent boost in their income. And a third of male graduates go to universities that confer only a “negligible” earnings example.

This raises questions about use, value and quality of some higher education institutions. The marketisation of higher education may be reaching its zenith; universities will have to change fast and considerably if they are to respond to the rightful demands of future generations for a qualification that is demonstrably, unequivocally worth their while.

However, the most interesting conclusion we can draw here is not actually one about degrees but what happens to those without one. If universities are so much better for women, that’s because women’s prospects overall are relatively so much worse.