In June 2017 the Longitudinal Education Outcome (LEO), the first full data set of earnings data from University courses across the UK, was published. The information matches HE data about graduates’ courses with earnings data from PAYE records at HMRC.  As such it provides a powerful comparator of the salaries students at different universities studying different courses can expect to achieve. Some analysis has been undertaken of the UK-level data – most notably by the WonkHE blog, but so far no specific attention has been accorded to the data for Welsh Universities. It is also timely given the focus in Wales on the implementation of the Diamond proposals and, more broadly, the discussions about student fees across the UK.

Before considering the data in detail, it is important to understand the context. This is raw data – the earnings data does not reflect the students’ prior attainment or indeed their chosen location for post-university work. The data only include PAYE records – individuals who are self-employed or have more complex tax affairs are not included.  This is a particular issue for some degree schemes where mixed patterns of employment are more routine, for example in the creative industries. Finally, one should be very wary about rushing to judgment about the comparative quality of universities in the different nations and regions of Great Britain. The data may well reflect the range of subjects taught at individual universities or more broadly reflect differences in regional wages. Data users need to beware of drawing simple conclusions.

Having placed the data in its appropriate context, we begin by comparing subjects across all Welsh Universities.

Table One – Wales HEIs: Subjects and Median Graduate Earnings 5 years after graduation

Agriculture & related subjects 19,500
Architecture building & planning 28,600
Biological sciences 21,900
Business & administrative studies 25,500
Computer science 25,100
Creative arts & design 17,800
Economics 27,400
Education 21,700
Engineering & technology 30,200
English studies 21,900
Historical & philosophical studies 22,000
Languages (excluding English studies) 23,500
Law 23,100
Mass communications & documentation 21,200
Mathematical sciences 26,700
Medicine & Dentistry 47,800
Nursing 28,000
Physical sciences 24,200
Psychology 21,700
Social studies (excluding economics) 22,500
Subjects allied to medicine (excluding nursing) 26,200

It is probably no great surprise that Medicine and Dentistry is the most lucrative degree course five years after graduating – and the gap between that and the rest is indeed significant. There is then a cluster of subjects where graduates can expect to earn up to £30,000 including engineering, architecture and nursing. On the lower earnings side, Creative Arts and Design fares particularly poorly with earnings falling below a benchmark Wales-wide average for adults with or without degrees of £20,800. Now, there may be some high earning artists whose data aren’t included here, but the scale of difference is significant – and an undoubted challenge to the sector. (It should also be noted that the data shows salaries five years after graduation: the comparison with Wales-wide average salaries is the best available, but has to be treated with caution.)

Considering subject based data is one approach, but we can also compare Universities and the earnings outcomes.

Table Two: Graduate Earnings One-Year, Three years and Five years after graduation

HEI 1 3 5
Aberystwyth University 14,700 18,500 21,500
Bangor University 15,500 18,700 21,100
Cardiff Metropolitan University 16,000 19,900 22,300
Cardiff University 21,700 26,400 29,700
Glyndwr University 17,500 20,200 21,800
Swansea University 18,000 21,200 24,300
University of South Wales 16,500 19,500 21,600
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 14,500 17,700 20,400


Here the differences are less stark, but there is a clear pattern. Graduates from Cardiff University are most likely to earn well after graduation, while Swansea’s graduates fare relatively well in the salary market. The picture is less positive (and broadly consistent) for the remainder of the Welsh University sector, with Trinity St David graduates’ salaries even falling a little below our benchmark average. An initial analysis of these data would suggest that earnings differentials across Wales have a significant impact on the earnings of graduates – particularly in those areas with large numbers of students who stay after graduation within the locale of the University.

Finally, we bring together subjects and Universities and create a weighted table of earnings by subject and university. Wales’ top 10 courses in terms of earnings potential are as follows:

Table 3: The ‘top 10’ subjects / courses in Wales for earning outcome

1 Medicine & Dentistry Cardiff University
2 Engineering & technology Cardiff University
3 Engineering & technology Glyndwr University
4 Subjects allied to medicine (excluding nursing) Cardiff University
5 Mathematical sciences Cardiff University
6 Nursing Cardiff University
7 Architecture, building & planning University of South Wales
8 Engineering & technology Swansea University
9 Nursing University of South Wales
10 Economics Cardiff University

The data here adds more nuance to the picture already discussed. It is striking that the subject table isn’t totally dominated by Cardiff University. Here we find that particular courses have excellent earnings outcomes, despite the broader picture for the host University. A case in point is the engineering and technology graduates from Glyndwr who consistently fare better than 95% of other courses. A few moments’ reflection leads one to consider the links between Glyndwr University and Airbus and the prospects of well-paid graduate employment within the immediate vicinity of the University. A different focus comes from the appearance of several health professions in the top 10. Nursing fares consistently well in earnings outcomes from every University course in Wales – a testament to both the common pay structure of the NHS across the UK but also of the close links between Schools of Nursing, the Welsh Government and the Health Boards (the major employers) in Wales.

Comparisons with Scotland and the English regions

In comparison with Scotland and with the English regions, the data shows that in most disciplines, Wales is ranked lowly. Of the 22 disciplines, median salary for Welsh graduates is the lowest in 10; and is among the bottom three in six others.  Only in Medicine and Dentistry do Welsh graduates have the highest median salary.

Neither Scotland nor any of the English regions have median salaries consistently as low as they are in Wales. The North West of England has the lowest in five of 22 disciplines; no other region or nation has more than two.

The chart illustrates graphically this position: the red bar for Wales is almost always near the bottom. 

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 11.38.59

Policy conclusions

Students will no doubt consider these graduate outcomes data alongside the increasing amount of granular data that they can now access about university courses. We would suggest, however, that here context is king. Subjects that are clearly linked to professional outcomes fare well – health professions particularly but also engineering and technology. There are however a number of courses where the graduate premium is less obvious, and a challenge to the sector in Wales is to improve employability for students on those courses.

Other research demonstrates the significant boost in likelihood of graduate level employment for students who have undertaken a period of work experience during their university career. More challengingly, however, there are clear differences between the impact on local economies of some courses or subjects. Government may wish to consider the public policy benefit of incentivising students to choose particular subjects, and for universities to prioritise those disciplines. The related challenge here is that if numbers of prospective students are to be controlled, then government must be able to direct resources to those areas to ensure the quality of provision.

More broadly however, this data also points to the parlous state of the economy in much of Wales – and the challenge faced by Government, Universities and society more broadly in developing the economy. Successfully addressing that key question would have a very significant impact indeed on the earnings potential of students (both currently and in the future).

This article first appeared in the welsh agenda, issue 59.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dr Dafydd Trystan is Registrar of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. Hugh Jones is a Cardiff-based consultant supporting the higher education sector across the UK.