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Sep 8, 2022 | by Marco Felici and Matthew Agarwala

Beyond the averages: the relationship between higher education and wellbeing

With ‘education’ appearing 139 times in the UK’s Levelling Up White Paper, understanding how learning and wellbeing interplay is crucial to the success of the government’s programme.

To explore whether the relationship between education and wellbeing is different for different groups of people, researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy used a combination of cross-sectional, panel and event study analyses on large UK datasets.

This is the first research to investigate this relationship in this way on this scale. It is part of our Many Dimensions of Wellbeing project, which looks at how subjective wellbeing is experienced by different groups in society. 

In this blog, the lead researchers on one of the two work streams, Marco Felici and Dr. Matthew Agarwala, highlight key findings from their work and discuss how going beyond the average could be the key to levelling up. 

The need to expand our approach

What drives wellbeing at the individual level can be different to what drives wellbeing at local or national aggregate level, and the focus is often placed in the latter. 

There is existing evidence of a stronger positive effect of education on subjective wellbeing at an aggregate rather than at the individual level. However people’s wellbeing varies considerably across the UK when using local authority data

Evaluating evidence using averages can miss variety and nuance. Recognising the role of education for people at different wellbeing levels is therefore key to fulfilling the levelling up missions. Policy makers cannot rely on macro-level data alone. 

What did we do?

We looked at the effects of having a university degree on populations who report high versus low levels of life satisfaction. 

To do this, we analysed secondary data from the Community Life Survey (2012-2017), the British Household Panel Survey (1991-2009) and Understanding Society (2009-2019). Depending on the model, we controlled for age, gender, marital status, social capital, health, year and interview mode. 

Key findings

We found that the importance of education – defined here as ‘having a university degree’ – varied substantially depending on the level of reported life satisfaction:

  • For those with low life satisfaction (scores 0-4), education is important and may act as a positive buffer against shocks by opening up different life trajectories.
  • For those with mid-level life satisfaction (scores 5-8), education has no statistically significant impact.
  • For those with high life satisfaction (scores 9-10), education may have a negative association with wellbeing, leading to ‘frustrated achievers’ because of its nature of positional good.

Our results point to the possibility that the relationship between education and life satisfaction is not constant. It varies across types of place (such as cosmopolitan, rural, and hard-pressed living) and across the life satisfaction spectrum. 

Tracking the data over time

The data followed the same individuals over many years, including before and after they earned a degree. A longitudinal approach showed that completing a degree-level education is associated with different trajectories of life satisfaction over time. These also depend on the initial level of subjective wellbeing.

The data shows that getting a degree initially decreases life satisfaction, but ultimately improves life satisfaction over time. For those with already low levels of life satisfaction, the short-term negative effect of getting a degree is smaller and the long-term positive effect is greater. Education may have a larger beneficial  impact on people with initially lower wellbeing. 

What does this mean in practice?

Perhaps the biggest message our work has revealed is that wellbeing research and policy cannot rely solely on evidence evaluated at the mean. 

Focusing on averages can mask critical insights and important nuance at the tails of the distribution. For example, if we accept the mean relationship across the data, we would find no statistically significant relationship between education and life satisfaction. But when we explore the tails, the relationships become statistically significant and work in opposite directions. 

Policies in both education and wellbeing need to be sensitive to these nuances. There is no ‘one size fits all’ option.

The harmonised ONS4 measures of personal wellbeing, which includes life satisfaction, have been collected since 2011 in the UK, providing a wealth of valuable information about the population.

With careful analysis, we can use these measures to help inform more representative education, wellbeing and Levelling Up policy, and support more targeted interventions and adjustable solutions.

For more details on this work, including methodology and data analysis:

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For more details on this work, including methodology and data analysis:

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