The best- and worst-paying university degrees


Updated on 30 August 2016 | 2 Comments

We take a look at the value of a university education, which degrees get the best returns and the premium you earn for postgraduate training.

Think going to university is expensive now? 

Well, starting in autumn 2017, universities in England will increase tuition fees above £9,000.

It means many students will be facing an even bigger debt mountain once they start working.

Which begs the question: is it actually worth it? Do degrees always pay off in the long run, despite the costs associated with them?

The answer, obviously, is it very much depends which degree you study.

Subject matters

Job search site Adzuna has revealed the degrees that can secure you the highest-paying jobs in the UK. It used analysis of job vacancies which specified the need for a certain type of degree.

Here are the top 17 best paying degrees which can get you an average salary above £30,000.

Degree subject

Average salary

Vacancies

Accounting Business Finance

£80,190

16

Management

£46,935

537

Computing

£46,313

2954

Politics

£46,097

11

Engineering

£45,154

4314

Social Work

£42,599

669

Mathematics

£40,719

446

Biology

£40,097

136

History

£39,461

38

Economics

£38,967

217

Nursing

£35,699

1508

IT

£34,039

611

Computing IT

£33,071

19

Marketing

£32,800

1075

Design

£32,604

391

Law

£31,055

697

Chemistry

£30,070

443

Source: Adzuna 2016

As you can see, Accounting Business Finance is by far the most lucrative, with the average salary nearly double the second-highest-paying degree.

Here are the worst paying degrees paying under £30,000 according to Adzuna’s research.

Degree subject

Average salary

Vacancies

English Literature

£19,230

12

English Language

£20,655

18

Psychology and Counselling

£21,177

269

Music

£21,719

28

Geography

£23,019

68

Art

£27,404

63

Agriculture

£27,981

28

Fashion and Textiles

£28,530

19

Physics

£29,021

280

Source: Adzuna 2016

Of course averages can be misleading to say the least. There will be massive variations within each field. One graduate working in the same field or even the same job as another can easily earn one-third less than some colleagues.

Career paths

Earning potential for different degree subjects is also influenced by the industries graduates enter.

In the table below, salary comparison site Emolument.com has set out the most likely career paths for each degree subject. This is based on data from 2015.

Degree subject

Industries most likely to hire graduates by subject

Industries second most likely to hire graduates by subject

Industries third most likely to hire graduates by subject

Business & Finance

Financial services

Industry

Telecoms

Management

Retail

Telecoms

Industry

Mathematics & Statistics

Financial services

Consulting

Retail

Chemistry & Natural Sciences

Public Sector

Industry

Engineering

Law

Law firms

Services, tourism, entertainment

Telecoms

History, Geography, Politics

Charity & Non-profit

Public Sector

Media & Advertising

Marketing & Communication

Media & Advertising

Retail

Charity &

Non-profit

Source: Emolument.com June 2015

Degrees in Economics, Finance, Mathematics and Statistics are shown to be the best route into lucrative careers in the financial services industry.

In contrast, students of humanities like Geography, History and Politics are the most likely to follow careers in charities, not-for-profit organisations and the public sector.

The annual rate of return on your degree

One way to determine whether your chosen subject will be good value is to look at the rate of return, which you can determine from the amount you invest compared to earnings.

The London Economics on behalf of the Department for Business Innovation & Skills took a look at this for undergraduates in June 2011, in a paper called The Returns to Higher Education Qualifications, just before the tuition fee cap was lifted.

It found the average rate of return for an individual with an undergraduate degree was 15.6% for men and 14.8% for women, which trumps the stock market or property over the long term.

Medicine, Mathematics and Computing as well as Law provided the greatest rate of return for both sexes. You can check out how the different subjects stack up on page 59 of the report.

Unfortunately, these figures are from 2011 and there hasn't been a similar study carried out since, so they are likely a touch out of date. The rates of return quotes are almost certainly lower now that the cost of university has gone up.  

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Graduate vs. non-graduate earnings

While graduates often start off earning a similar amount to non-graduates, this changes quickly over the years.

Figures from the latest Department for Business Innovation & Skills Graduate Labour Market report for 2015 shows younger graduates (aged 21-30) had a median salary of £24,000 compared to a median salary of £18,000 for non-graduates in the same age range.

But the median salary of working-age (aged 16-64) graduates is £31,500 compared to £22,000 for non-graduates, suggesting salary differences jump later on in your career as a graduate and stall for non-graduates.

That said the graduate premium has narrowed in the last nine years from around 55% to 48% higher than non-graduate earnings between 2006 and 2015.

The latest analysis from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills in a 2013 paper called The Impact of University Degrees on the Lifecycle of Earnings says on average female graduates will earn an extra £252,000 and male graduates an extra £168,000 over their lifetime compared to non-graduates.

Degrees more beneficial for women

On average, research shows that women gain greater financial benefits from a university education than men do.

Women who don't go to university tend to earn a great deal less than men who don't go to university. However, women's incomes, on average, are boosted more by a degree to make it a more level playing field.

Similarly, men from poorer backgrounds also benefit more from university than men from affluent ones. Discrimination, it seems, is more difficult for employers when you've got a degree.

However, there is still a big difference in average earnings between male and female graduates.

According to the latest figures from the Higher Educational Statistics Agency latest Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2014/15 report the average salary for female leavers was £21,000 compared to £22,00 for males.

The postgrad premium

Some - but far from all - employers offer a premium for those who go beyond a Bachelor's degree.

Figures from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills Graduate Labour Market report  show the median annual salary of young postgraduates (21-30) was £28,000 in 2015, £4,000 more compared to graduates in the same age range.

According to 2011 The Returns to Higher Education Qualifications paper from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, men with a Master’s degrees earn an extra £59,000, while women go on to earn an extra £42,000 over their lifetime.

Do degrees always pay off?

No, not always.

A degree is a gamble unless you have a guaranteed job waiting for you at the end of it. Otherwise it depends on the job market and the economy.

And it’s an expensive gamble. The average student leaves university with debts totalling £44,000 (Sutton Trust report) and the current average graduate starting salary is £22,500 (HESA).

Even if your salary goes up every year by almost 5%, it will still take you at least a decade to pay off your debt, which will cost you even more than you think.

It's true that, without a degree, you can still earn more than the average graduate. Those taking training places from one of the big accountancy or law firms, for example, can circumvent the need and cost of a degree.

However, graduates are less likely to be unemployed.

The current employment rate for working age (aged 16-64) graduates is 87.1% compared to 69.8% for non-graduates. (Department for Business Innovation & Skills Graduate Labour Market report 2015).

Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that around 6% of students drop out of university (HESA 2014/15) in their first year and over half of graduates end up with non-graduate jobs (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).

That's a lot of statistics. You may need a degree just to take them all in!

This is a classic loveMONEY article that has been updated

More articles on student finance:

The best student bank accounts

The financial advantages of being a student

The universities that lead to the highest salaries

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