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How does education influence professional success?

 |  4 Min Read

There’s a growing emphasis on employability within higher education. Increasingly, programmes are being designed to ensure students make a smooth transition into working life.

This is certainly true at the University of Birmingham. We believe education and personal success are intimately linked, and that’s perhaps why we’re consistently ranked in the top 15 UK universities for employability1. According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 94.8% of our graduates are either in employment or studying within six months of leaving2.

Employment by the highest level of qualification held.

Figure 1: ONS data showing employment levels by the highest level of qualification held (2017)

Securing employment after graduation is typically just the first step, and as alumni go on to accumulate real experience and develop valuable skills while working, the role of education in professional success becomes progressively more obscured. Nevertheless, the evidence that it continues to exert long-term influence on professional success is plentiful.

Earning potential

Not too long ago we remarked on the large volume of articles in the business world promising tips on becoming successful by emulating “successful people”. Though these articles rarely go into depth about just how “success” is defined, the assumption most articles seem to make is that it’s linked primarily to career advancement and salary.

If we’re to go by those markers – salary in particular – the latest data strongly supports higher education’s effectiveness. In compiling its recent ‘Absolute Returns’ report3, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies found that female and male graduates are earning 28 percent and 8 percent more on average than their non-graduate counterparts by the age of 29.

Look to any kind of up-to-date ‘rich list’ and you’ll find further evidence of the near-necessity of higher education. Forbes top-five mainstays Jeff Bezos, Carlos Slim and Warren Buffett are all graduates, L’Oréal heir and world’s richest woman Francoise Bettencourt Meyers inherited a fortune built by her graduate grandfather, and while tech-giant founders Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are famous college drop-outs, both have publicly acknowledged the importance of the time they did spend in study.

Career possibilities

Though an important one, salary is just one aspect of professional success. Career paths are also affected by the decision to progress to higher education – most obviously, law and medicine are exclusive to graduates, but different industries provide a range of roles exclusively available to this population.

Public administration education and health is a sector dominated by graduates, for example, as the latest ONS data shows.

Percentage of graduates and non-graduates employed in each industry group.

Figure 2: ONS data showing the percentage of graduates and non-graduates employed in each industry group (2017)

Career progression

Higher salaries and skillsets point towards an employment pattern where graduates enjoy greater seniority within businesses. The earnings data we touched on earlier can be put down, in part at least, to graduates finding their way into higher-skilled positions in better paying industries, but it is also a reflection of the greater suitability of graduates for senior and leadership roles.

Percentage of graduates and non graduates working in each skill level group.

Figure 3: ONS data showing the percentage of graduates and non-graduates working in each skill-level group (2017)

Although employers place a high emphasis on workplace skills, with some even arguing that graduates lack such skills4, universities are keen to maintain and further improve solid graduate employment rates. The rapid rise in average pay for graduates shows that the vast majority of university students adapt and advance quickly once in a position.

So, why is this? Graduate aptitude is obviously tested through academic grading, but the life skills necessary for negotiating through a three-year course are often underestimated. Learning at university is a disciplined process testing a great range of analytical and linguistic skills at the root of most of human endeavour. Simple self-confidence and perseverance are also tested, along with timekeeping, creative problem solving and the self-actualisation necessary to argue a case for advancement.

Define success for yourself

The proof that education influences professional success is seen via a wealth of employment data, showing that earning potential is higher, career possibilities are wider and career progression faster. The value of a degree is not just in the literal application of the knowledge gained from different courses, but in the skills and habits picked up via the process of study.

How do you define success? Is a person more likely to be successful if they graduate from university? Tell us in the comments below.

The University of Birmingham offers a range of online degrees. If you are interested in returning to study via distance learning, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team.


  1. UNKNOWN. (2018) Graduate Employability: Top Universities in the UK Ranked by Employers 2018 [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16.08.2019]
  2. UNKNOWN. (2018) Employment of Leavers: UK Performance Indicators 2016/17 [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16.08.2019]
  3. UNKNOWN. (2018) Undergraduate Degrees: Labour Market Returns [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16.08.2019]
  4. PATON, G. (2013) University Leavers Lack the Essential Skills for Work, Employers Warn [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16.08.2019]

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