Are graduates different?


I’ve been thinking about graduates and graduateness a bit recently. In general I’m fairly sceptical of the idea that everyone in the world should go to university. We’ve done some work recently looking at higher apprenticeships and in I think that there is a lot of value in having a range of different approaches for people to develop skills and gain qualifications. I would even argue that it is possible to gain high levels of skills, knowledge and expertise without having any qualifications or formal learning at all (SHOCK – HORROR!). Wikipedia offers us a list of autodidacts which includes people like John Clare, Terry Pratchett, Charles Darwin, Ben Franklin and Karl Marx who I think that we’d all have to admit made a contribution to the world that ranks with most graduates.

Personally I got a lot out of university. It shaped my thinking in a whole host of ways, introduced me to new people and formed my career. I’ve then spent most of my career working in and around higher education and while I’m not uncritical of it, it is something which I believe is socially, economically and politically important to society. But, what of the students that we produce? Are they really different as a result of experiencing a higher education?

There are clearly a number of different kinds of answers that we could give to this question. The first one is that clearly they are because they have a degree. If universities achieve nothing else they at least deliver formal qualifications that people want to have and that at least some employers value. We know that employers value degree qualifications because they actively recruit from higher education and because there continues to be a considerable graduate labour market premium. A recent paper from the ONS highlights the fact that graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to be employed in skilled occupations and less likely to out of work or economically inactive. It also points out that graduates earn more than non-graduates across their lifecourse.

This in turn raises the question of why graduateness is so prized and whether this is justified. This is a particularly sharp question in an era when there is a growth in alternative routes to professional status. In a useful piece of research commissioned by The Edge foundation Lowden et al. highlight the complex mix of things that employers believe that they get from graduates. Employers believe that degrees develop both technical skills (which in some cases it would be possible to develop in other ways), but also a range of soft skills including the capacity to lead and manage and to think critically. Older research in the US suggests (see the synthesis in How College Affects Students) that these kind of economic impacts have maintained for a long while and that they are global. It also suggests that some research has found that graduates are better at doing many jobs when they are employed alongside non-graduates. However, the literature is rather weaker on why this might be.

Cynics might argue that this is actually describing a processes of cultural learning that graduates undergo whereby they learn to be middle class and to behave and perform in ways that are acceptable to the kinds of people who run organisations. In Paul Willis’ memorable phrase are graduates merely ‘learning to labour‘ in more sophisticated ways that their school leaver counterparts. Professional or graduate labour includes the ability to demonstrate some level of shared cultural interests with the people who run organisations. Is university just a rite of passage that delivers this?

Such analyses highlight the social and cultural importance of university education rather than its much trumpeted ability to bring about educational and cognitive change. Does university actually change the way that you think?

The answer to this is not as straightforward as we might like. It took me a long while to find any literature that addressed this issue at all. Brennan et al.‘s recent paper for BIS makes the point that there is a lot that we don’t know about the wider impacts of university beyond the kind of economic things that I’ve discussed already.

Brennan et al. then go on to discuss the wider benefits of higher education under a number of headings.

  • Citizenship and civic engagement – going to HE seems to make you more likely to vote and to participate in a range of social and civic activities.
  • Crime – going to HE makes you less likely to commit most offences (interestingly graduates are just as likely to commit violent crimes).
  • Health and wellbeing – more education generally makes us healthier and handle personal problems.

They also note that there is some evidence of an influence on a variety of personal and psychological attributes. Students will often report increased confidence, independence and maturity.

Brennan et al. also summarise the work of Pascarella and Terenzini (who I’ve already mentioned for their book How College Affects Students). This American work concludes that higher education has five main impacts.

  • Learning and cognitive changes e.g. things like verbal skills, critical thinking, problem solving and flexibility. So for example Pascarella et al. argue that liberal arts education encourages deeper forms of learning which in turn support cognitive development and critical thinking. Jessup-Anger argues that conventional residential university experiences foster a commitment to lifelong learning.
  • Psychosocial changes e.g. leadership skills.
  • Attitudes and values. These were mainly associated with civic involvement but also with decreased racism.
  • Moral reasoning. This describes the use of principled reasoning in addressing moral problems.
  • Career and economic impacts.

Much of this literature struggles to demonstrate causality, but there does seem enough evidence to suggest that higher education is doing something other than just increasing the number of people with degrees.

I’d be very interested to hear others opinions on this subject and to hear more about any literature in this field.


  1. As a starting point I like “What are Universities for?” by Collini. His useful vs. critical paradigm is generally helpful. I think if you ask is university more useful than its alternatives then the answer will probably be no because none of its tradition encourages this. By contrast it does have the potential to produce a degree of general criticality that other routes do not. This criticality can connect with a range of arenas including education in a different way. I think this questions this raises are does HE continue its tradition? And what could the potential be for this sort of graduateness be if it did?

    On a slightly different perspective I recently read “Paying for the Party” by Armstrong and Hamilton which makes the argument (from an American perspective) that HE just makes young people re-perform their existing social capital and so does little to break down class barriers on an individual basis.

  2. This was thought-provoking, thank you. Just a comment to say that Darwin did do a degree, though admittedly not in natural history. And also two years reading medicine at Edinburgh before dropping out. Your point is well made, however!

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