HEFCE’s recent analysis of the wellbeing of graduates finds that graduates are, on average, happier over their lifetime than non-graduates. The analysis also shows that graduates’ sense of wellbeing is more resilient in the face of difficult circumstances such as divorce, unemployment and ill-health. Across three measures of wellbeing – life satisfaction, happiness and worthwhileness – graduates report greater wellbeing even when confronting hard life events.

Although graduates in good health or in employment tend to be slightly more anxious than non-graduates, that changes when they consider their health to be ‘very bad’. At these times graduates are far less anxious than non-graduates. A similar pattern holds for both marital and employment status – when out of a job or divorced, graduates tend to be less anxious than non-graduates.

Difference in anxiety between graduates and non-graduates


These findings contrast with research on the wellbeing of students while they are studying. Students report greater anxiety and less happiness while studying than young people experience outside higher education (HE). These findings have raised concerns for students’ mental health that have prompted action in the sector.

What are the possible interpretations of these two contrasting findings? Perhaps study is more stressful than the early-career stage for those young people who do not enter higher education. It is also possible that students in higher education respond to the pressure of their studies by learning to cope with stress and misfortune to a greater degree than those who are not subject to those pressures. If students learn resilience through their studies, whether it is explicitly taught or not, this may later enable them to better cope with poor fortune.

Resilience is one of a set of skills that are often referred to as ‘non-cognitive’. They are the skills that are essential to success in life but are not directly measured by academic attainment. In a review of the evidence on non-cognitive skills, the OECD found that ‘for many outcomes, their predictive power rivals or exceeds that of cognitive skills’ and cautioned that ‘achievement tests… do not adequately capture valuable non-cognitive skills[, which]… should cause policymakers to think twice about relying on achievement tests to evaluate the effectiveness of educational systems.’

Across the UK, the education policy community has begun to recognise the critical importance of skills such as resilience. There is discussion of how to understand student resilience in the context of public debate and research on how to define and approach resilience within the university. Student support organisations, such as AMOSSHE, are funding the development of techniques to enhance students’ resilience. Resilience and character education also enjoy growing popularity in compulsory education, where the UK government aims to ‘develop and build character, resilience and grit.’

Much research on non-cognitive skills focuses on education from early childhood through to adolescence, where the benefits of intervention are believed to be the greatest. However, the results from HEFCE’s research suggest it is possible that students are developing their skills further during higher education.

Understanding the development of non-cognitive skills through higher education requires specific testing and investigation; HEFCE’s funding of learning gain research may contribute to that. The primary aim of HEFCE’s learning gain programme is to measure the skills gained in higher education, and it funds over a dozen research projects in support of that. These research teams are attempting to measure various aspects of those skills, both cognitive and non-cognitive. Some, such as the team at the University of Portsmouth, are explicitly focused on the development of psychometric measures of students’ non-cognitive skills.

Existing measures of academic attainment, such as degree classifications, are crucial indicators of cognitive and subject-specific skills but say little about non-cognitive skills. Through better measurement, it will be possible to gain a fuller understanding of the value of higher education. That is useful for demonstrating value for money, but also enables research into the skills that contribute to a happy and worthwhile life. Ultimately, it may enable educators to focus more to the skills that matter most for individuals’ later wellbeing.

Read the full report on graduate wellbeing