Why women who go to university are winning

Written by: Sarah O’Connor
Published on: 21 Jan 2019

Source: Financial Times, published on 11 December 2018

It has felt like a long year for women. A steady drip, drip of news has reminded us of all the ways in which we are still losing out in the labour market, from harassment to stubborn gender pay gaps. But a study published in the UK has flagged one way in which women appear to be winning.

A team of researchers commissioned by the UK government analysed education and earnings records for more than a million young people to answer an important question: is it really worth going to university?

They found that, for women, it is a no-brainer. By the age of 29, women who went to university were earning 26 per cent more on average than women from similar backgrounds who did equally well at school but did not go. Only 1 per cent of women took a university degree that had a negligible or negative impact on their pay. The findings for men were very different. Their earnings were only 6 per cent higher on average than people from similar backgrounds who chose not to go, and about a third of them took degree courses that turned out to have negligible monetary value. 

The study raises an important question about whether it is right to encourage more young people to attend university, given that some institutions and courses seem to do them more harm than good (at least monetarily — they might of course be life-enhancing in other ways). 

But it also has the side-effect of revealing dramatic differences between the experiences of young men and women. We already know that girls do better than boys at school and are more likely to go to university. Are they also better at picking the most lucrative courses and institutions?

A closer look at the raw numbers shows a different story. Women who graduated from university are earning roughly £31,000 on average by the age of 29, compared with £37,000 for their male peers. The reason female graduates do so much better than female non-graduates with decent GCSEs is that the latter earn very little: about £21,000 compared with almost £30,000 for male non-graduates.

The real question, then, is why women who do not go to university do so badly in the labour market. The study only looked at people’s incomes, not the number of hours they worked. But we know that women who do not go to university tend to have children earlier, and are about twice as likely to be working part-time in their late 20s. Simply put, university seems to take women down a different life-track. There is scant evidence from other countries on the gender difference in the returns from higher education, so it is hard to know if this pattern is unique to the UK, though it seems unlikely. 

It is also possible that the labour market options available to bright non-graduate women are worse than the options for comparably smart men.

Apprenticeships are meant to provide alternative pathways into skilled jobs for school-leavers who do not go to university. Yet a delve into the UK’s apprenticeship data suggests they are reinforcing, rather than challenging, gender segregation in the labour market. Women account for just 16 per cent of ICT, 8 per cent of engineering and manufacturing, and 3 per cent of construction apprenticeships. These are sectors that offer clear routes into higher paid work for non-graduates. Yet women — whether through their own preferences, social expectation or discrimination — are not entering them. Jobs that facilitate part-time work, such as retail and care, tend to be lower-paid and with less scope for progression. 

It has been a comforting thought for people of my age that gender disparities in the labour market are steadily evening themselves out with each successive generation. But this study is a reminder of just how different things remain. For a class of 17-year-olds making choices today about what to do next, their gender matters, far more than many of us would like to think. 

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