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Vocational Stem courses beat degrees on pay

Higher-level vocational college courses can be more lucrative than university courses, LSE study reveals

STEM graduates earn more than their peers, research by the CVER shows

People who completed higher-level vocational qualifications in Stem subjects earn more than graduates from similar courses at non-Russell Group universities, new research shows. 

Researchers at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) affiliated with the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) – part of the London School of Economics – found that by the age of 30, those who had completed a higher-level vocational qualification (level 4 or 5) earned more on average than their contemporaries who went to a non-Russell Group university to study similar subjects.

However, the research also found that those who attended Russell Group universities – a self-selecting group of universities with high-admission requirements, including Oxford and Cambridge – outpaced all other courses, except in the area of construction.

Read more: Level 4 and 5 qualifications 'improve earnings'

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Background: What are level 4 and 5 qualifications?

The analysis of data from hundreds of thousands of English secondary school leavers shows that the earnings of degree holders in many subject areas are consistently higher than those of people with higher vocational qualifications.

Colleges can beat university for pay prospects

However, people with higher-level vocational qualifications overall show relatively high earnings early in their working lives because more of them work before or during their studies. This, the researchers say, is very different to degree holders, who are more likely to pursue full-time education up to the end of their studies. Over time, average earnings converge and eventually are higher for degree holders.

However, by the age of 30, those achieving higher vocational qualifications in Stem subjects are observed to have higher average earnings than degree holders in the same broad subject area from non-Russell Group universities. This finding remains consistent when controlling for a wide range of further characteristics.

The research by CVER shows that earnings of STEM graduates are higher than their peers


Stefan Speckesser, the associate research director at the NIESR, who co-authored the report, said data on earnings outcomes is extremely valuable as young people and their families look over higher education options.

He added: “Higher vocational education offers an important – if massively under-explored – alternative choice of tertiary education, often run by local colleges and resulting in lower debt for students compared to those incurred by degree holders (or, if within an apprenticeship, no debt at all because of employer funding).

“Our study shows that for young people interested in specific professional roles, higher vocational education could indeed offer useful, cheaper and ultimately more lucrative alternative to university.”

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