The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What do students think about value for money?

by Kristina Gruzdeva

In 2022, the cost of living crisis meant communities across the UK had to adjust their behaviours and their spending. Many needed to learn to navigate within a complex energy market. Prospective university students were in a similar position, being expected to make a cost-conscious decision about their degree education with limited understanding of their options. In research conducted for my PhD, I invited first-year students to participate in focus groups to explore their orientations to their degree. Students were recruited through online and on-campus campaigns that were run in the autumn of 2019/20. The overall sample consisted of 51 participants (39 female, 10 male and 2 non-binary; 28 from ethnic minority groups; 14 were ‘first in family’ students). All participants were first-year students who started their degree at a Russell Group University, with a balance across all five faculty groupings in the university. I developed a typology to show how students perceive their degree, their beliefs about the financial implications of going to university and how they define value for money. In England, undergraduate fees of £1000 were introduced more than 20 years ago, raised to £3000 in 2006, and to £9000 more than ten years ago. My findings suggest that even now, five years after the Higher Education and Research Act legislated for an HE market, it is problematic to rely on informed student choice as a basis for the market’s operation.

Students in the first category of the typology view their degree as an essential requirement for their career. Students in this category are enrolled in STEM or Medicine courses and have a clear idea of what they would like to do upon graduation. Their family background is diverse, with some choosing to follow their parents’ footsteps, and others being first in their family to go to university. Students in this category hold shared views on employability, graduate salaries, and value for money. The data show that employability and career aspirations are important to first-year students transitioning into HE (Mullen et al, 2019). Metrics of graduate employability gave these students some reassurance and helped them to narrow down their options in choosing courses. These students did not look for information about graduate salaries and explained this by studying for a degree that leads to in-demand jobs. They comment that information about graduate salaries was “already there” when they looked for other kinds of information about their degree. Students who view their degree as an essential requirement report that their degree provides good value for money.

The second category of students described their degree as an investment. These students also had a career-oriented approach to their education, but their career plans were less defined compared with the plans of students in the first category. They studied a wide range of degree courses and came from diverse backgrounds. When asked about their awareness around employability, some students reported that they had come across information about it, whereas others said that they did not know much. When prompted to explain why they did not search for such information, these students suggested their career plans had not crystallised yet, so they were not sure how to interpret such information and to what extent it would be relevant to them. As in the first category, these students reported that they did not look for information about graduate salaries. They assumed such information would not be relevant because they had not yet decided what to do upon graduation. They had a mix of views on value for money. Some believed that their degree would offer good value for money because it would open doors to many opportunities, whereas others had a different opinion. Perceptions of poor value for money were related to instances when students’ expectations had not been met. For example, a few students had expected more contact hours. Others had expected that their maintenance loan would cover the costs of their accommodation.

The third category of students described their degree as a desirable experience. These students were enrolled in Social Sciences and Humanities courses. Importantly, these students came from families where at least one parent holds a degree. Their decision to study at university was driven by their academic interests or a belief that getting accepted onto a course would be easy. When asked about whether they considered employability metrics, these students said that they did not. They also did not look for information related to graduate salaries. One student, reflecting on her decision to study at university, suggested that prospective students had tunnel vision and were not concerned about their career prospects. Two individuals commented that education is not about jobs and appeared to look down on the other members of their discussion groups, who shared the view that their education offered knowledge and skills for work. There was a mix of views on value for money. The social and wider personal benefits of studying for a degree were attributed to good value for money. In this category it was rare to find perceptions of poor value for money; such perceptions came from unfulfilled expectations related to contact hours.

Student career aspirations, or lack thereof, played a dominant role in shaping students’ views on their education and how they perceived value for money. Most students in my study did not actively search for information related to employability or graduate salaries; rather, they assumed the economic value of their degrees. These findings challenge the consumer-oriented approach to HE because focus group participants did not appear to act as informed consumers, which is problematic in an HE sector supposedly driven by market imperatives.

Kristina Gruzdeva is a Research Facilitator at the University of Birmingham. Kristina’s research interests are in higher education policy, mainly in relation to student finance, student choices, and marketisation. This blog is based on a chapter from her recently completed PhD. Email:

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Silver linings but no silver bullet: Graduate careers in (times of) crisis

by Andrew Dorrance and Daria Luchinskaya

It should come to no-one as a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of students and graduates alike in an unprecedented way. The recent SRHE event Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis, jointly organised by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks, explored the impacts of the pandemic on graduates’ transitions to work. While there have been scattered silver linings for students and graduates, many challenges remain. This blog summarises the key themes emerging from the event and discusses potential steps forward.


The ‘Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis’ event aimed to discuss the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with physical distancing requirements, and to reflect on the broader labour market context (please see the section at the end for more details). The speakers contrasted findings from the ‘Class of 2020’ Graduating in a Pandemic project, that tracked the experiences of recent graduates with the longer-term experiences of the 2009/10 ‘Recession graduates’ from the Futuretrack project. Careers professionals discussed their responses to the pandemic and highlighted different projects aimed at helping students and graduates. There was a general sense, too, that the pandemic seems to have acted as a catalyst for reflection, among students, graduates, careers staff and other stakeholders.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities among students and graduates that then had different effects on their transitions to employment.

Digital inequality, where students and graduates struggle with access to sufficiently high-quality internet connections and personal devices, accentuates barriers to accessing education, job interviews and jobs that have moved online. Both Futuretrack and Graduating in a Pandemic found that there was vast difference between people’s experiences of working from home, accentuated by digital inequality and potentially the environment in which they can work.

There was also qualitative evidence of work placements, interviews and job offers ‘falling through’, with graduates reporting difficulties in doing their jobs and some even saying they lost their ‘perfect’ job offer. College graduates who undertook vocational courses orientated towards the service sector were particularly affected, and reported difficulties in finding or doing their jobs when in industries that were particularly affected by Covid-19 – for example, in events management or beauty therapy.  College graduates were also more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds than university graduates.

Some graduates who would have, in other circumstances, joined the labour market, have been opting to go into education (eg graduate to postgraduate or college to degree-level) as a temporary solution to a lack of graduate job opportunities.

Ultimately, the labour market impact of the pandemic contributed to an increase in anxiety amongst students and graduates, particularly those studying subjects that required placements to complete their degrees, and those who were already facing disadvantages. These findings are consistent with what we know from the experiences of ‘recession graduates’ of 2009/10. Futuretrack and related research found that existing inequalities structured access to careers information, networks and useful resources and the ability to navigate the recession stemming from the crisis, and that these educational and social (dis)advantages were cumulative.

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, Graduating in a Pandemic found that around a third of graduates from 2020 were employed in or had been offered a job that was related to their intended career path (although such graduates were more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds). For those working in the so-called ‘non-graduate’ jobs, it may be a matter of time before they move to more appropriate employment, although it remains to be seen hoe Covid-19 will affect different industries over the longer term.

The majority of Futuretrack’s ‘recession graduates’ had moved to ‘graduate’-level employment 9-10 years after graduation. Over half of those reported that it was exactly the type of job they wanted to do and over three quarters were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, even 9-10 years on from graduation, a substantial minority of Futuretrack graduates were not well integrated into the labour market and unsatisfied with their jobs. This less-well integrated group of graduates, as well as those who recently changed work and those working freelance and the self-employed, were perhaps more vulnerable to the (indirect) effects of Covid-19, for example, regarding job security or eligibility for furlough.


The pandemic had also offered people a chance to reflect. Futuretrack graduates reported taking time to re-evaluate career priorities and life values. A small number of 2020 graduates whose job offers were impacted had indicated that the pandemic had given them the time to rethink their career path and look for and attain their ‘dream’ job rather than the ‘graduate’ job they would have done otherwise.

Careers services professionals found themselves in a ‘unique’ role as a link between HE, students, graduates and employers, and stepped up to the pandemic challenges. They worked hard to develop inclusive and innovative ways in supporting students and graduates. For example, online workshops and events improved accessibility and speaker availability. However, there were also challenges in attaining consistently high levels of attendance and ensuring that the services reached the students and graduates most ‘at risk’ of falling through careers service provision.

Careers services also developed new resources, for example focusing on virtual recruitment practices and work placements to address the changes to the recruitment and placements process as a result of the pandemic. Over the pandemic period, careers services were also able to learn what services work better online (eg using the shared screen feature to look at students’ CVs) or in-person, and to adapt as the pandemic unfolded, and continues to do so.

Looking forward

Fortunately, going forward there are perhaps tentative grounds for positivity, as student recruitment had seen an uplift and employers were becoming optimistic about growth in the short-term with opportunities for graduates coming into the labour market. However, there were also concerns around the ongoing uncertainty around the unfolding impact of the pandemic. It was also clear that not all graduates were motivated by financial gain, which led to a discussion about including social returns in measuring the value of higher education in addition to the current focus on individual labour market outcomes.

We know that it is taking longer for graduates to find an ‘appropriate’ job in the labour market. Time will tell whether graduates of the pandemic will settle into the labour market like the graduates of the 2009/10 recession eventually did. For the moment, offering accessible careers support to students and graduates, while highlighting areas of inequalities in labour market entry, the experience of work, and the mental and physical health of students and graduates to inform policy, remain ways in which we can help pandemic graduates navigate their post-graduation transitions.

Andrew Dorrance is an Undergraduate Student in Economics in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and Research Assistant for the Graduating in a Pandemic research project.

Daria Luchinskaya is a Lecturer at the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, co-convener of the SRHE Employability, Enterprise And Work-Based Learning Network, and a member of the Graduating in a Pandemic research team. Follow Daria on Twitter @DariaResearch.

Further links and resources

The Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis event was co-hosted by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks and took place on 16 June 2021. The aim of the event was to provide evidence from the UK on the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, and to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with social distancing, as well as reflecting on the broader labour market context. Presentations by Scott Hurrell (Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow) on the class of 2020 (Graduating in a Pandemic) and Kate Purcell (University of Warwick Emeritus Professor) on the class of 2009/10 (Futuretrack) highlighted research findings about graduates’ early and mid-careers. Susan Bird (Careers & Employability Manager, University of Edinburgh) and Rachel Firth (Employability Consultant, Sheffield Hallam University) presented the experience of careers professionals’ responses to the pandemic. The event attracted a diverse audience, including academics, careers professionals, and representatives from think tanks and employer organisations.

Graduating in a Pandemic is investigating the post-graduation activities of the class of 2020 and 2021. It is run by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde (PI Dr Scott Hurrell). See the project website at:

Futuretrack is a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of applicants to full-time HE in 2005/06, run by Professors Kate Purcell and Peter Elias at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. Findings from the longitudinal projects and published reports, including research reports from Stage 5 (2012 – 2019) and Stage 6 (2019 – 2020), can be accessed via

A report co-authored by Shelagh Green, Director, University of Edinburgh Careers Service, ‘Careers Services in times of Covid-19’ (March 2021), COIMBRA Group can be accessed at:

The University of Edinburgh Careers Compass resources:

Sheffield Hallam University careers services resources:

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Learning gain expectations – the parental perspective

By Valerie Anderson

Issues of ‘learning gain’ increasingly arise from opinions and concerns about ‘value for money’ in higher education. In what some believe is an over-supplied graduate labour market, the discourse of employability also looms large as a feature of this discussion. Continue reading