Here's some wonderfully sloppy reporting from the BBC:
University graduates earn on average about a quarter more than young people who leave school after their A-levels, a study has suggested. Higher education organisation Universities UK measured the economic impact of getting a degree. It found average additional earnings of £160,000 over a working life.
In fact, Universities UK didn't measure anything. They commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers to do the research (pdf). And they didn't measure anything either. The "quarter more" estimate (actually 23.5%) - from which the £160,000 figure is derived - is lifted from table 4.2 of this paper (pdf), which PWC contrive to misname.
PWC claim this estimate is "representative of the wider literature."
Well, it ain't representative of this paper, which PWC don't cite. It estimates that male graduates earn just 15.2% more than ones with A levels. And roughly one-sixth of them earn less than 11.1% more.
Even more scandalously, the report claims that "there has been no erosion of the financial benefit of a degree even though there has been a substantial incresase in the supply of graduates."
Evidence for this comes from this paper (pdf). Strangely, however, the report fails to mention this paper by Nigel O'Leary and Peter Sloane. It concluded:
There is concerted evidence to suggest that the expansion in student numbers has led to some moderation of the financial rewards offered to recent cohorts of graduates. These findings are more pronounced for women than they are for men, are more pronounced in the lower reaches of the skill/earnings distribution than at higher skill/earnings levels, and are more concentrated for arts degrees.
For example, they estimate that among women born in the 1970s, the degree mark-up was 22.8%. But for women born in the 1980s, it's only 14.5%.
The report also claims that "in Britain's knowledge-based economy there is every prospect that this demand [for graduates] will continue to grow in the future."
But it provides no evidence for this. This just seems like vindication of Simon Barnes' wise words:
One of the rum things about human life is that we treat any stage we happen to be going though as something permanent and unchangeable, as if spring will never come, as if happiness will never end, as if youth will last for ever.
Certainly, the report doesn't cite this paper which points out that India and China are becoming massive suppliers of cheap skilled labour, which could depress graduate earnings in the future. It says:
The expansion of higher education may...create a substantial wastage of talent amongst college and university graduates leading to a greater disersion in incomes as graduates accept sub-graduate work.
What Universities UK is doing, then, is not research. It's just touting for business, by painting as bright a picture as it can of the returns to education and (deliberately?) ignoring dissonant evidence. But who cares about the futures of our young people when there's a few bob to be made out of them?