Higher education can help with levelling up, including in terms of subjective well-being, but only if policy is attentive to providing local tools for distributing its social and economic impacts, says Marco Felici, Researcher.
The Many Dimensions of Well-being project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy seeks to understand variation in well-being beyond what can be learned from average trends by zooming in on different groups in society. One stream of research focuses specifically on how education and subjective well-being (SWB) relate to each other. Education is associated with a number of positive outcomes: better job prospects, opportunities for geographic and social mobility, and a greater pool of resources that can act as a buffer for SWB against unfortunate events and circumstances (such as the many brought about by the pandemic). It can also reduce inequality and is thus relevant for the UK government’s levelling up agenda. Research by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing found substantial inequalities in SWB across and within local authorities in Britain. On average, higher education is also associated with higher SWB, although there is heterogeneity and some places report a reversed pattern.
When analysing the effect of additional education on social and economic outcomes, it is common to focus on the difference between those with and without an undergraduate degree. This is due primarily to the fact that education is structured in cycles (e.g. a three-year degree) and the ability to economically utilise education is closely tied to completing cycles and thereby achieving on-paper qualifications. Moreover, degree-level education is associated with large jumps in outcomes, for instance in the wage premium. However research exists that takes a broader definition of education (for instance total years of full-time education) and the positive association between education and SWB remains. Nonetheless, these results might hide important nuances in the effect of education across the SWB distribution. For example, an individual who is going through a tough time might benefit (or not) from having a degree differently from someone who is facing less challenging circumstances. In fact, if education buffers SWB, we might expect that the more challenged individuals are, the more they benefit from the buffer. This would imply that differences in educational attainment have divergent effects on SWB depending on whether an individual has high or low SWB.
We can explore these themes using the Community Life Survey for England between 2012 and 2017 by looking separately at groups of individuals that report low and high life satisfaction, a popular albeit incomplete measure of SWB. Figure 1 focuses on individuals who report a life satisfaction of below 5 on a 0 to 10 scale. It visually shows how the share of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher relates to mean life satisfaction. It groups these averages by type of geographical area – deprived, rural, urban & suburban and central urban areas where large numbers of students and young professionals live. One takeaway is that areas with more degree holders also have higher levels of life satisfaction. Another is that the type of area matters. Those areas defined as “Deprived”, which are mostly located within urban and suburban areas and which record, among other things, higher than average rates of unemployment, have both the lowest levels of educational attainment and the lowest levels of reported life satisfaction. This is compared to better off areas across the board: be it rural, urban, suburban or the central urban areas where large numbers of students and young professionals live (which are the places recording the highest levels for both variables).
Figure 1: Education and Life Satisfaction for Low Levels of Reported Well-being
Note: Author’s calculations based on waves 1-5 of the Community Life Survey
The positive relationship between life satisfaction and having a degree among those with low levels of life satisfaction holds even once we account for factors that could drive either life satisfaction alone or both life satisfaction and educational attainment. These include age, marital status, the frequency of meeting friends and family (as a measure of social capital), general health, and the year of survey. The association between life satisfaction and education is much weaker for people with higher life satisfaction and even negative at the highest levels of it.
What might explain this result? One possibility is that those who report low levels of life satisfaction face severe difficulties against which education may act as a buffer. In contrast, among those with high levels of life satisfaction, education may play less of a role. Having a degree does not help those already in a good personal position but can help those in a dissatisfying situation. Unsatisfied degree-holders tend to reside in more “liveable” areas that offer better services and have more financial resources compared to similarly unsatisfied individuals without degrees. Education would buffer SWB here by changing life trajectories. Of course, access to higher education depends on socio-economic status, so these life trajectories are somewhat predetermined.
The policy question is whether levelling up access to education can help level-up SWB. While the patterns above seem to indicate that higher education could benefit those worst off in SWB terms, the aggregate implications are less obvious. If the locations offering conditions conducive to high SWB remain limited, improving access to education might increase pressure on those areas without precipitating improvements in more deprived areas. This would increase geographical polarisation and “brain-drain” places that are worse off. Think of the recent news that Brampton Manor Academy, a state school in Newham, a London borough that fares worse than the city average in many respects, has secured more offers at Oxbridge universities than Eton. While likely to be transformative for the life trajectories of the offer holders, this outcome is unlikely to help level-up the rest of Newham, especially in the short-term.
A successful levelling up strategy should complement increased access to education for individuals with more geographically distributed access to services and opportunities for local communities, such as infrastructures. This requires a place-based, rather than space-neutral, approach. There are policy proposals that combine higher education and local development by leveraging universities as civic and economic catalysts for the levelling up of their local area. An example is the soon-to-open Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough. It will offer degrees designed together with local businesses with the intention of being accessible to older generations and the wider community of Peterborough. Higher education can help with levelling up, including in terms of SWB, but only if policy is attentive to providing local tools for distributing its social and economic impacts.
 Cabinet Office and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2019). Community Life Survey, 2012-2017 [data collection]. UK Data Service.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.