On Tuesday young people all over Scotland received their exam results. Some will have been waiting desperately to see if their grades were good enough to apply for a university place. Not all would have succeeded.
When, eventually, all results were collated, it transpired that more university hopefuls had succeeded this year than at any other. Good news for all concerned including of course the Scottish government, teachers and organisations like SQA and UCAS.
So I was dismayed when I tuned into Radio Scotland on Wednesday morning to hear the presenters of Good Morning Scotland call into question the merits of university education. “Are University Degrees really worth it?” asked GMS presenter Hayley Millar. The question was based on a ‘survey’ published by insurance giant Aviva.
I could barely believe it. Less than twenty four hours after a record number of Scotland’s students had found out they were going to university, here was BBC Scotland raining on their parade. Where was this survey? Who had taken part?
Within five minutes I had located the Aviva press release. The lengthy headline read: UK: Generation regret: over a third of millennials who went to university regret doing so as they struggle with debts and squeezed finances.
It began with five bullet points:
• University is a costly regret for 37% of ex-students, while 49% believe they could have got to where they are now without it
• Majority of millennials (63%) are relying on a one-off event to help them financially in the future, rising to 72% who went to university
• With just £156 to spare each month after essential living costs, 18% are depending on family inheritance and one in six (17%) have said they are hopeful of winning the lottery
• Over one in three (35%) millennials agree their generation is priced out of the property market
• EU referendum compounds money concerns of 18-35s as the proportion worried about their future finances leaps 23 percentage points since the vote
The first two sentences of the press release read:
Britain’s millennials (18-35s) are fast becoming a generation of regret, as more than one in three (37%) who went to university regret doing so given the amount of debt they now have. As they struggle to pay back tuition fees, meet daily living costs and save for the future, nearly half (49%) of millennials who went to university believe they could have got to where they are now if they hadn’t gone, Aviva’s latest Family Finances Report reveals. [my emphasis]
Tuition fees of course don’t apply to Scotland. Any student whose home is north of the border receives free university tuition.
The survey was described as UK wide, however a PDF available for download made scant mention of Scotland. In fact there was only one reference to Scotland – a map showing average monthly income, average savings and average house price. There were nine separate regions of England and one from Wales. There were specific references to the ‘north west’, ‘south west’, ‘north east’, ‘south east’, Wales and London. The study and its conclusions appeared very heavily slanted towards England. There was no indication as to how many of the 1073 respondents were from Scotland.
Radio Scotland continued to promote the survey as representative of Scotland, despite giving no actual Scottish breakdown of the data. The two audio clips below demonstrate how it was being used in order to question the wisdom of going to university.
It was also the subject of the morning radio phone-in as can be heard below. In order to emphasise the anti-university narrative, the first caller all but dismissed the necessity for university education.
I fired a quick email off to Aviva and asked how many of their respondents had actually come from Scotland. The short answer is reproduced below.
“The millennial survey formed part of Aviva’s Family Finances Report that tracks finances across households. For the specific millennial part, those aged 18-35 were surveyed. Within Scotland specifically, 95 millennials were surveyed.”
Ninety five respondents were from Scotland, which is less than ten per cent of the one thousand and seventy three total participants. It’s true that surveys of over one thousand will generally produce an accuracy of plus or minus three per cent. However this survey was essentially asking about the financial effects of two different systems.
The most obvious difference, as I have already pointed out, is that students in England pay tuition fees. They will tend to have much greater levels of debt after graduation than their Scottish counterparts. House prices [covered in the survey] also vary wildly north and south of the border. Indeed the survey actually highlighted regional variations across England, giving London separately from other areas of England.
This was, in essence, an English survey. Every single one of the 95 Scottish based respondents could have expressed no regrets about having gone to university and it would have made no difference to the outcome. Indeed we don’t even know whether the Scottish sample resulted in the same outcome.
There’s another important point. Radio Scotland ran this story less than twenty four hours after Scottish based students received their exam results. How many young people from deprived backgrounds will have been dissuaded from applying to university because of this coverage? If only one student decided not to apply to university, it is one too many.
BBC Radio 4 covered the story, as well they might, given the survey was relevant to the majority of their listeners. English students though won’t get their exam results until next week. By then the story will have been forgotten and will have less impact.
Listeners to Radio 4 heard how students will have to endure an average debt after graduation of £44,000. This however is in part due to the introduction of a £9,000 ceiling on tuition fees in England. There is also the small matter of the abolition of grants for half a million of England’s poorest students.
But where did the £44,000 figure come from? Well the Aviva report contained a reference to a study by the Sutton Trust which was published in April 2016.
‘A recent study by the Sutton Trust estimates three quarters of graduates paying £9000 tuition fees will be paying off their student loans in their fifties.’
I tracked down this study and found something interesting. Of the four constituent parts of the UK, Scotland had the lowest graduate debt per student – £9400.
England – £44,500
Wales – £19,000
Northern Ireland – £18,200
Scotland – £9,400
Scottish graduates leave university with less than one quarter the debt of their English counterparts.
I don’t know what prompted Radio Scotland to invest so much time and resource in promoting a study that some basic research would have suggested was relevant only to England. I do know that the timing of the coverage was unfortunate in that it came less than a day after a record number of Scottish students earned the right to attend university. Good news was spiked.
BBC Scotland has, for some time, exhibited an over reliance on reports and studies from third party organisations in order to pad out its news coverage. These reports are very often politically motivated and contain questionable conclusions. Pacific Quay management appears to accept them at face value. Fortunately the number of Scots who accept at face value what the BBC reports, is diminishing.
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