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Higher education has considerable impacts on those who experience it and on wider society - but how is not always clear, according to a study commissioned by the government.
A review of more than 50 recent research papers from various countries was carried out by LSE Consulting for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
A report on the findings, Things we know and don't know about the wider benefits of higher education, concludes that there is much evidence of the impact of higher education - but more research is needed to better understand the processes involved. Aside from the significance of higher education qualifications in the labour market and the resulting effects on people's lifestyles, the most frequently cited wider benefits were both to the students and to society as a whole. Graduates are more likely to vote - but it is not clear, for example, whether that is because they have experienced higher education or because the sort of people who are more likely to vote are more likely to go into higher education in the first place.
Similarly graduates are less likely to be heavy drinkers, to smoke, or to die from strokes. This might be because they are more likely to access preventive health care, but the causes are difficult to establish. Beyond the individuals, society as a whole is affected by higher education. Merely by their presence, universities have an impact on theatre and music, food and drink or sport and recreation. Their academics may also engage with local and national interest groups, the media, private enterprises and councils. So generally they add to the knowledge and culture available to all. Higher education gives students an opportunity to leave home - but might therefore deprive some areas of their most talented people, to the detriment of those who remain.There is even growing evidence in Britain that education can entrench and exacerbate inequalities in society. However, at the same time higher education provides a clear route to upward social mobility and also appears to make people tolerant and accepting of immigration.
The report concludes: "Arising from this review is an agenda of questions which need to be asked in order to better understand the processes through which the impacts of higher education are achieved, how they can be maximised in the future, and how they can take better account of the growing diversity and differentiation of both higher education and society."
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