Ag universities hit back at ‘flawed’ earnings report

Agricultural universities and departments have hit back at a report that recommends steering students away from “low earnings” degree subjects, including agriculture.

Titled, A question of degree, the report from centre-right think tank Onward uses Department for Education data on long-term earnings outcomes for higher education.

This shows that 10 years after graduating, those who have studied agriculture and related subjects have median earnings of £24,300.

Ranked by earnings, this puts agriculture graduates 22nd in a list of 23 subjects, compared with those who studied the top-paying disciplines – medicine, economics, maths and sciences, engineering and technology – for all of which median earnings were more than £40,000 after 10 years.

See also: Agri-food careers advice – courses, qualifications and job prospects

The report is timed to feed directly into the government’s independent review of post-18 higher education funding and says that for between one-fifth and one-quarter of students, it is not worth incurring more than £50,000 of debt to obtain a university degree.

Flawed data

Harper Adams University vice-chancellor Dr David Llewellyn said the report drew on flawed, backwards-looking data to attempt to assign a value to degree courses by broad subject area. 

“The aggregation of courses [in this case agriculture and related subjects] means that many career paths in the industry that are well rewarded, compared with graduate roles in other sectors, are not properly represented,” he said.

“Further, the data takes no account of the full package of job-related benefits, which, in the case of farming, can sometimes include accommodation and transport – both valuable additions to a graduate’s salary. 

“There is considerable debate about the relative value of degrees, because of the ongoing review of post-18 education and funding, which this report has sought to influence. 

“What is clear from the large number of employers with whom we work is that there is considerable demand for graduates with the right education and work experience and that the agri-food industry needs higher-level skills to deal with the transition to the new policy environment for food production and environmental land management.

“That is why the industry is working, via the Agri-Skills initiative, to find ways to encourage more entrants to the sector, across all skills levels, together with a range of different talents that will help the adoption of new technologies in the biosciences and engineering, as well as those in information science and data management.” 

Training future farmers

Prof Julian Park, head of the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading, said: “To suggest that a degree is only ‘worth it’ based solely on earnings set a few years after graduating seems to wilfully miss the wider point of what university is for.

“While some degrees may not give the same earning power, their benefit to our economy and wider society cannot be overlooked.

“The University of Reading actually has some of the highest earning outcomes for agriculture degrees, but we know that training future farmers is worth far more to the UK than just balancing the government’s books.

“Our graduate farmers are ensuring that the UK can feed itself and by challenging and exposing our students to new ideas and ways of farming, we know that they are going on to improve their trade and with it, our profession.”

The Onward paper made false assumptions about the value of degrees in the land-based sector, and did not address the future needs of our industries and society, said Royal Agricultural University vice-chancellor Prof Joanna Price. 

“Do we really believe that a technology-driven sector such as agriculture that relies on science, innovation and entrepreneurship for its future success, can succeed without graduates – which is what this report is implying?

“A recent report from GuildHE, which represents small, specialist institutions of which the RAU is a member, stressed the limitations of using salary data for measuring the value of university degrees, for setting tuition fees, or the public funding of higher education and we fully endorse this view. 

“Traditionally, many agriculture graduates return to work in family businesses that constantly seek to reinvest in order to innovate, which is one of the reasons why salary data for this sector is not meaningful.

“Additionally, many graduates from universities like ours are self-employed, as we actively promote entrepreneurship, and thus they contribute significantly to economic success. Bizarrely, self-employed graduates are not accounted for in the data.”

What the Onward report recommends

  • Reducing access to courses that deliver low economic value in terms of graduate earnings
  • Encouraging students to gain qualifications through a better and expanded technical education system
  • A graduate tax cut of 50p in every pound to halve the loan repayments of two million graduates – this would be paid for by reducing the cost to the taxpayer of subsidising low-value university courses that don’t benefit their students

Download a PDF of the report