Tag Archives: education

Stand-up Maths

This is brilliant…

Investing in your education?

This chart appeared in a recent Economist blog post – I think it’s nicely done. It’s based on a study of U.S. university graduates, and the amount they earn over an extended period. The X-axis is a measure of the quality of the institution: roughly speaking, how easy it is to gain admission.

economist-degree-return

This shows some interesting things – at first glance. First, that Engineers, Computer Scientists and Mathematicians earn more than other fields, which seems only right and natural to me – and second, that the institution at which you study makes very little difference to your final earnings, which seems a bit less plausible.

But then I read the article more carefully. What this is actually plotting on the Y axis is the rate of return on your investment in the degree. If you had put the cost of your education into a savings account and left it for 20 years, what would the equivalent interest rate be? A rather mercenary way of thinking about education, perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless. If you’re studying business, maths or sciences, it’s an exceedingly good investment. If you prefer an arts subject, then you should – and probably will – find other ways of assessing the value of your education.

Now, in the States, a degree at Harvard, MIT or Stanford will cost you much more than one at Fred Bloggs College, and you will earn correspondingly more as a result of graduating, to the extent that the annualised return is roughly equivalent.

But it would be fascinating to see the same analysis done at British universities, where, for local and EU students at least, the tuition rates are capped and are the same at most institutions. (British students whining about their fees at our top universities should remember that they could easily be paying three times as much in America.) So I imagine the returns here would be rather higher, and the slope rather more pronounced.

Want a bargain degree?

The Guardian is running a piece under an attention-grabbing but rather irresponsible headline: The £135 university lecture – but is it worth it?.

To achieve this figure, they take the planned fees for the University of Birmingham – £9000/yr – and divide it by the rather short terms – 22 weeks/year – and the number of lectures attended by students of probably the least demanding course on offer, at least in number of lectures: English literature and philosophy.

The result is about £136/lecture.

Rosie Taylor, the journalist, does mention in passing that

Admittedly, part of their fees will go towards the university’s day-to-day running costs, from stocking the library and organising exams to getting toilets cleaned and maintaining buildings.

and then ignores this rather important fact for the rest of the piece.

These arts students who have three lectures a week – and this is not unusual – would have been a subject of great envy for me as an Engineering undergrad. While they auditioned for Footlights and explored each others’ cocktail cabinets… Well, OK, that’s a little unfair, but I think I had more than twenty lectures per week, including a full set on Saturday mornings. That was in addition to practical sessions and small-group supervisions.

Those who run and attend the arts courses would assert that lectures were only a small part of the overall educational experience, but it will be interesting to see whether ‘value for money’ becomes a part of students’ considerations when choosing a course. I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or not. Indeed, it could lead to a sort of snobbery – who attends the most expensive lectures on the campus? Or perhaps, “this course will cost you a lot per lecture but you’ll get a degree after only sitting through a few of them!”

Anyway, it’s interesting to note that on this highly artificial metric, my Engineering & Computer Science degree at Cambridge would be around one-tenth of the price of Literature & Philosophy at Brimingham.

Keeping fees in perspective

When I was young, somebody told me, “You should never borrow money for anything smaller than a house.” It was good advice, and ever since, I’ve disliked the idea of spending any money I haven’t yet earned. I drove old bangers, and fixed them myself, until I had the money to buy something better. I’ll only buy a new car now when I have enough money in the bank to pay for it. And I don’t use credit cards.

So I’ve always disliked the idea of graduating students starting their working lives with large amounts of debt, and when student loans first appeared in the UK, just as I was finishing my undergraduate course, I was opposed to them. Twenty years on, Oxford, Cambridge and a large number of other places are likely to be charging the full £9,000 tuition fee next year, and lots of people are up in arms about it, but I find myself feeling rather differently.

I was fortunate to have had a good education, and to have experienced both state comprehensive schools and a fee-paying private school. The teachers, in general, were good, intelligent and dedicated, in both. The students, the facilities, and everybody’s expectations, were rather different.

My parents, being teachers, would have struggled to afford a private education for me, but it was a high priority for them and I was fortunate to win a scholarship which allowed me to have a few more years of it than might otherwise have been possible. And what I really appreciated about life at the private school was that this was a place where learning wasn’t despised by the other kids, where everybody had worked towards at least a basic level of academic achievement to get here, and where everybody knew that daddy was paying a lot for the privilege. Not everybody felt that way, of course, but that was how it struck me. Yes, education should be a right for all, but there is also a large degree to which we value more that for which we have to pay more. Or, to be more precise, that for which we can choose to pay more.

One of the things my father found difficult when he returned from a couple of decades of teaching in Africa was to have students who didn’t really want to learn. He had never encountered that before, in a place where education was a privilege available only to a few…

Now, not having kids, I haven’t followed this recent debate closely, but this is how I try to keep things in perspective:

  • If the top universities like Oxford and Cambridge do levy tuition fees of £9000, they will then be charging, per year, approximately what Stanford, Harvard and M.I.T charge per quarter.
  • Most Oxbridge colleges have been running at a loss for some time – the money they have been getting from the government has long been insufficient to cover the per-student costs. There is already a heavy positive discrimination in favour of those from less-privileged backgrounds, and that will, if anything, increase.
  • The repayment terms of these new fees are such that the average cost of your higher education, once you start earning, will be about the same as the average UK mobile phone bill.

Arguably, education is one of the few purchases more important than a house. So, perhaps, having to borrow for it is not such a great hardship. Even if you do have to give up your mobile phone in exchange.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser