IFS report sparks debate over the commodification of higher education

A recent article released by the Guardian has revealed that analysis conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that one in five students who attend university end up earning less than similarly performing peers who did not pursue higher education, resulting in a ‘net financial loss’ for 20% of graduates.

The IFS further specified that women and creative arts students are more likely to receive worse returns on their education, with degree-holding women also reaching their peak earnings before their male counterparts.

This report apparently aligns with increased scrutiny from the government in England, which will potentially aim to restrict the number of students taking “low-value” courses. Concerning the losses and gains of the government, the IFS found the government faces a substantial loss on approximately half of the degrees it finances, facing ‘substantial’ losses in the creative arts. Regardless, the government benefits overall from the increased tax revenue paid by high-earning graduates.

Responses to the IFS research have been mixed.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, and Michelle Donelan, universities minister, both stressed in response to the IFS analysis that education offers a wide range of experiences outside of financial benefit.

Professor Des Freedman contests the mindset of the IFS research and subsequent reporting, writing that “a university education is a public good and not a plaything for the exchequer.”

This calls to mind the current dispute at the University of Edinburgh and other striking universities to end alleged the “corporatization” of education – indeed, the research itself seems to imply a higher education “market”, and the responses of Grady and Donelan nonetheless employ cost-benefit analysis in their response to the IFS article.

The policy that may be encouraged by the rhetoric employed by the IFS and subsequent reports could continue to make higher education policy decisions through economistic metrics.

Freedman also emphasized the more positive statistic that can be extracted from the IFS – 80% of students do in fact benefit financially from earning a degree. Men are £130,000 better off on average from their degree, degree-holding women earn an extra £100,000 over their careers.

An article from ‘’ has questioned why the value of education should be measured through salary rather than the wider outcomes higher education offers. Their article came out in response to the home office’s new immigration system, which prioritizes “skilled workers” who have received job offers with salaries above £25,600. It notes that the Department for Education report released based on the IFS research also seems to fall into the temptation of measuring “value” (of individuals, in the narrow scope of immigration cases, and of higher education courses overall) through salary.

Questions have also been raised as to whether focus should be on investigating routes to better supporting financially precarious students during and after their degree. Perhaps, following the IFS report, especially orienting assistive policy towards women and creative arts students. Professor Freedman stresses the values of higher education outside of salary and recognises the benefit supposedly “costly” degrees hold, culturally and socially.

Critical responses to the IFS report have tended to prioritize the university student in their analysis. With the highlighted issues, perhaps more efforts should be made to broaden the options young adults have after graduation secondary school.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office of Students, has argued we must ensure equal opportunity for students to the benefits of higher education. The benefits of widening education are arguably widespread. However, some have seen the IFS research as a sign to provide students with opportunities for further education outside of potentially costly the university experience.

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