Question Helen Education

What is a first-class degree worth?

Are first-class degrees being devalued in the current UK higher education landscape?

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Answer Expert #26888

Successive reports have questioned the value of an increasingly-saturated supply of first class degree-holding adults, with the proliferation of new institutions and an increasingly market-oriented recruitment ethos having been developed in the 21st century (CIPD, 2016). Students are being reconceptualised as customers, and are being sold a lifestyle as much as a qualification; in addition, the move to a loans-based system with students becoming potentially liable for the costs of tuition and maintenance has given rise to further debate about the economic worth of a first degree (Elliot, 2016). Increasingly, graduates are taking up non-graduate positions; the move towards democratisation of higher education access has not necessarily been responded to with an equivalent increase in positions and salaries reflective of the qualifications achieved. Data indicates that 12% of UK young adults were in higher education in 1979; by 2014, that figure had increased fourfold to 48% (Elliot, 2016). There is a mismatch between the wider economy and the level of qualification being attained. That is not to say that higher education schools have an automatic economic benefit. However, with undergraduate courses being increasingly vocationally-oriented, there is perhaps reasonable expectation among students that their studies will lead to well-paying and career-structured lives after graduation; this would appear not to be the case for increasing numbers. The purpose of higher education for some may well be intellectual growth and development, but there are questions to be asked when there is a financial aspect in respect of loan repayments to students (Oxford Brookes, 2016). A more realistic balance between expectation and reality post-graduation is perhaps called for, not only so that undergraduate courses are not mis-sold, but that students do not set themselves up for a debt burden without first fully considering alternatives, such as apprenticeships or informal education through MOOCs, rather than the time and financial commitment to an undergraduate degree (Allegretti, 2015).


Allegretti, A. (2015) Bad news if you’re looking for a graduate job. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
CIPD (2016) Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Elliott, L. (2016) Huge increase in number of graduates ‘bad for UK economy’. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Oxford Brookes (2016) Higher education and higher learning. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).