Just how much do top universities really boost your earnings?

A new study suggests that family background might be a bigger factor in graduates' success

The financial advantages of studying at a Russell Group university may not be as clear-cut as you thought, a new report suggests.

The prestigious group of 24 universities prides itself on statistics that show graduates earn up to 10 per cent more than those from modern institutions.

Yet Ian Walker, an economics professor at Lancaster University and one of the study’s authors, has explained that when controls relating to A-level achievement and family background are factored in, differences in average graduate earnings are ‘not statistically significant’.

When these are introduced, male Russell Group graduates earn two percent less than those from other universities dated pre-1992, and only three percent more than those from post-1992 institutions.

Walker told Times Higher Education that students from reputed universities earn more not because they studied at a "better teaching institution" but because they are simply "smarter graduates".

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, responded: “Trying to control for differences in students’ entry qualifications or background is not particularly meaningful, and incredibly difficult to do with any reasonable accuracy. The report’s authors are quite candid that in this respect their analysis is basic and imperfect.

“Our leading universities are highly selective and we make no apologies for that - we want to admit students with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed - whatever their background. That’s why there are seven applications for every place across our universities.”  

Overall, the government study finds that the average female with a degree can expect to earn an extra £252,000 over their lifetime, with their male peers £168,000 better off. The biggest earnings premium for both men and women comes from medical and and economics-related subjects, while law, business, maths, engineering, computer science and physical science degrees each provide a boost of at least 20 per cent.