‘Why I believe in university before babies’

Life choices: Does family life have to come at the expense of further education?
by Anne McElvoy

Anne McElvoy is a journalist and broadcaster. She is currently the public policy editor of The Economist and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and 4.

Kirstie Allsopp has suggested young women should shun university and concentrate instead on getting a job, buying a flat and having babies. But actually this makes no economic sense at all.

People say the oddest things, and none more so than cheery property guru Kirstie Allsopp. She has decreed that young women should eschew university and settle down instead with a nice chap and have babies, lest the biological clock run out on them. Many of us are for nice chaps and babies. But the rest of the prescription is very wrong indeed.

First on the raw economics. The graduate premium (what you get paid on average for having a degree) in Britain is one of the highest in the world and – good news, Kirstie! – it is especially so for young women (worth an extra 52% over the non-graduate population through a lifetime’s earnings). For men it is less than 30%. Why the gap? Because women without tertiary qualifications tend to remain much lower-paid than equivalent men.

The next best news is that this earnings premium is solid, regardless of family background, and it applies once tuition fees have been repaid. That said, I would caution any applicant to think about the quality of their course, assess the job market realistically and get focused work-experience under their belt. But that is a far cry from the advice not to join the rest of the prosperous world in getting better educated.

“When in doubt, do as the rich folks do. And rich folks, the world over, by hook or by crook, send their children to university.”

Allsopp thinks it might be nice to keep this for later. Hmm. As useful as it is to keep learning, the notion that delaying a degree until the children have gone is a triumph of hope over experience. And the welcome opportunities offered by a new breed of online courses also work far better for those who already have a degree, because learning is something we get better at with practice.

Now let’s turn to the bit about the chap and a flat. I guess what Allsopp has in mind is not the kind of place most modestly paid women end up in, and which would not be the envy of her property programme, ‘Location, Location, Location’. She thinks it would be preferable if a parent helped out with the deposit. That rules out a sizeable chunk of the population.

And what happens if the nice chap turns out to be not so nice, or the young couple do not get along? The woman is most often left to provide the bulk of childcare and try to find a job in a market that favours graduate employment and pays accordingly. Qualifications are body-armour for young women in an uncertain world. And while domestic and family happiness are goals, rightly to be prized, the answer to the pressures on women about their careers is not to be found in ditching university.

Sure, some very talented people will do well without it. Jamie Oliver also sounds a discouraging note on behalf of the little Olivers. But the children of the Allsopps and Olivers are in a very different position from most aspirational youngsters.

So instead I would refer you to the inspirational Geoffrey Canada, who transformed the education opportunities of some of the poorest American children. He has one key piece of advice about why learning is useful. ‘When in doubt, do as the rich folks do.’ And the rich folks, the world over, by hook, crook and private tutor, send their children to university.

Allsopp is watchable, witty and usually correct on the property premium, just way off target on the graduate one. Do not try this at home.

This article first appeared in the Evening Standard.

Word Watch

Of the first-time buyers in the UK who bought property in 2012, 64 received financial help from their parents.
Jamie Oliver
In an interview this January, Oliver confessed: ‘Maybe I am not the best parent. My daughter has to do two hours of homework a night. After one hour I’m saying, “Come on stop now. Let’s play. Let’s do something.”’ He added: ‘If one of my kids goes to university I will be shocked.’