Graduate pay varies significantly according the subject you study – and where you study it. Tom Calver identifies the courses with the best prospects.
Some are swayed by dreaming spires, while others like the drinks deals. A few will pick the furthest place from Mum and Dad to spend their formative years. But as a new cohort of teenagers gets ready to make a decision, it has never been a better time to be picky about universities.
New data suggests that choosing the right place to study can add up to £45,000 to graduate earnings — even between universities with similar reputations.
According to figures compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), computer science graduates from Oxford attract median salaries of £65,000 just 15 months after finishing their degree, more than those from any other course. Take the same subject at Bath Spa or Leeds Beckett, though, and you might start your working life on £20,000 a year.
Even between similar highly-selective Russell Group universities, the difference can be tens of thousands of pounds. Dentistry graduates from Newcastle make £50,000, but those from Manchester get £38,364, dropping to £32,000 for graduates from Queen’s Belfast and Dundee. Studying maths at Imperial nets graduates £38,000, but just £23,000 at Newcastle.
The same is true of post-1992 universities, where it pays to shop around for specialised courses. Bournemouth has one of the highest salaries for information systems and management, with graduates making about £42,000. Those from Derby, however, make just £19,000, a difference of £23,000.
With so many graduates to choose from, it is thought that employers are having to get more picky and are beginning to take as much notice of where you study as how you did (firsts and 2:1 degrees preferred).
Professor Jeff Frank, an economist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: “If the vast bulk of students are getting ‘good degrees’ — firsts and upper-seconds — then employers need to rely upon A-levels and upon the university.”
It is not quite that simple, however: good universities do not necessarily guarantee good salaries. Oxford’s German graduates are paid just £21,010 after 15 months — below the subject average of £23,500, and about £6,000 less than those at St Andrews.
Frank says these examples show the limitations of graduate salary data. “It can be dangerous to take a short-run perspective,” he says. “I am confident that an Oxford arts graduate can make a high salary if they decide to go that route, although early career jobs such as a junior curator at a museum are poorly paid.”
But the Hesa data does reflect an apparent shortage of so-called “Stem” graduates (science, technology, engineering and maths) who are able to command higher initial salaries.
Across all subjects, the median salary 15 months after graduation is £24,000, but £27,000 for maths, £28,000 for physics and astronomy, and £29,160 for chemical engineering. Leading the way, though, are dentistry and medicine graduates, on £38,694 and £35,000.
What about the rest? Last year, a paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that the overall “graduate premium” — the net financial benefit of going to university — was about £120,000 over the course of a working life. However, once the cost of tuition was factored in, a fifth of graduates would not be better off for going to university at all.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says: “Some people in government say that if a degree course leads to low earnings, it is a low-value course. I don’t agree with that: there are some professions you just don’t earn much in; it doesn’t mean those courses shouldn’t exist.”
Bottom of this year’s salary rankings are drama, dance and cinematics, on £19,000, and creative writing, on £18,500. “Look at the theatre: the West End relies on people with creative arts degrees,” says Hillman.
Most students are not motivated by salaries, at least according to research published earlier this year by the Universities and College Admissions Service (Ucas). “We know the motivating factors behind degree choice are often not based on financial return, and salary is not the ‘be-all and end-all’. Only 13 per cent of finalists consider salary as more important than interest in the role when looking for a graduate job.”
However, the Ucas study found that those who were motivated by graduate outcomes tended to do better. “Maths students are particularly motivated by graduate prospects when choosing their degree subject and have one of the highest recorded salaries,” the research found.
The huge discrepancies in graduate salaries should not be surprising, says Hillman. “It’s always been the case that big gaps between graduate outcomes exist. But the difference now is that we’ve got the data to prove it.”
For those motivated by picking a salary with well-paid prospects, the data is now available to make educated decisions. But some wonder whether it is fair to charge the same fees for town and country planning at the University of Gloucester, whose graduates earn just £12,000 on average, as Oxford’s computer science graduates.
“The post-’92 universities are simply charging too high a price for a less research-led teaching environment,” says Frank. He points to America, where the elite University of California charges fees of about $14,000 a year but mainstream California State charges closer to $7,000.
For now, though, with no reform of tuition fees on the horizon, students will have to weigh up for themselves whether their degree is worth it.
Check out more great articles like this on the The Times' Good University Guide.