UNIVERSITY degrees are not the key to a lifetime of high earnings, according to new research which found that the financial benefits of higher education have been massively over- estimated.
The study by academics at Swansea University discovered that graduates can now expect to earn an average of just 140,000 more throughout their lives compared to those who do not go on to university. Previous estimates had put the figure at 400,000.
For graduates who have earned a degree in the arts, the difference drops to just over 22,000.
Researchers Nigel O’Leary and Peter Sloane believe that the record number of people now entering higher education may actually be driving down wages because the supply of graduates into the workplace is outstripping demand. Although the study focused on universities in England and Wales, Dr O’Leary told The Scotsman that the figures for Scotland would be similar.
He said: "The circumstances are the same on both sides of the Border. Whereas before, graduates accounted for a small proportion of the overall labour market, it’s now approaching one in two.
"People like the CBI are saying, ‘We don’t need more graduates, we need more plumbers and electricians’.
"The net effect has been a massive increase in supply and the result has been a fall in the earning premium attached to a university education."
The Swansea University study took account of the cost of studying and the likely wages lost while at university before working out how much graduates were likely to earn over the course of their lives.
They found that on average, male graduates could expect to earn 141,539 more than non-graduates.
For women, the figure was more - 157,982.
For some degrees, such as maths and computing, that figure can be as high as 222,419, but for others, such as the arts, it can be just 22,458.
Dr O’Leary added: "There is going to be a massive flood of graduates into the labour market and what this would suggest is that it’s likely that the additional earning power associated with a degree is levelling off.
"The picture isn’t as bright as it was 15 or 20 years ago.
"If you are simply looking for financial returns, then some degrees - like the arts - just don’t offer them."
Robin McAlpine, a spokesman for Universities Scotland, said he was not surprised by the findings.
But he insisted students entered university to enhance their overall quality of life, rather than just financial reward.
He said: "The message is that there is an earning benefit of being a graduate, but it’s important to be realistic about what that benefit is.
"We would be fairly horrified if we thought that the only reason people came into higher education was for a quick cash advantage.
"If you take the job satisfaction of graduates compared to non-graduates, most graduates enjoy their jobs more - and the same goes for their enjoyment of life in general.
"Being a graduate is about enriching your life and getting a lifestyle which is rewarding."