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Good returns

10 October 2006

New beginnings, wise investments, and tipping points: the Vice-Chancellor shares his thoughts on the new academic year.

This time of year is definitely one of my favourites. Because I have spent almost all my life in academia, autumn is always the time of change and excitement – new university, new academic year, new school. I still feel that excitement now, and that is increased by the arrival of all the students. The campus is just buzzing this week and there is a wonderful sense of renewal. Jami West, my new PA, arrived in August and she came in on Monday morning saying she couldn’t believe the number of people on Tyndall Avenue. We agreed that they are all looking younger, that we were very jealous of them, and that jeans of one sort or another are still the uniform du jour for students.

September brings the annual vice-chancellors’ residential get-together for three days. This is usually a very grey suit affair but I am glad to report that appointments at Coventry, Loughborough, Strathclyde and, recently, Oxford Brookes (not to mention Patricia Broadfoot at Gloucestershire) have meant a significant increase in female V-Cs. Change is slow in this area, but it is happening, and there is a feeling that we are approaching a tipping point.

This year the meeting was held in Exeter, and there was a fascinating presentation by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the personal and general economic impact of higher education. They showed that a degree still gave increased earning potential and that the value of a degree was not being diluted by higher numbers of graduates. The average lifetime increase in total earnings of a graduate over someone with similar A-levels who did not go to university was over £160,000. This varied from degree to degree, with medicine the highest at nearly £400,000. The annual rate of return for a graduate on the average financial investment in the degree was 11.1 per cent, and the rate of return to the Treasury for their investment in higher education exceeded 10 per cent. Good returns for all.

One surprising fact was that although the price of a degree has gone up because the fees have increased, the cost has actually dropped. This is because up-front fees have disappeared, some grants have been re-introduced, the loans are even cheaper than before, and there are substantial subsidies in the form of bursaries that were not there before. For a student who receives all the subsidies, this means the rate of return now exceeds 13 per cent. What is important is that we communicate that message effectively, and there is definitely room for improvement there.

I have done two full rounds of visits to all departments and support services since my arrival, and I am starting on the third round this year. I always feel welcomed; they are always fascinating visits, and they remind me why the talent and commitment of all our staff make being V-C at Bristol the best job in UK higher education.



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