What do you value most about your university education? What do you think you’re paying for when your tuition fees leave your bank account?

The teaching you receive, perhaps? Proximity to great research? The opportunity to be supervised by some of the leading minds in your field? All this is important stuff, obviously. But if these are the first things that spring to mind you may be not be paying enough attention to university’s less tangible benefits.

According to a new study published in Oxford Economic Papers and reported in Times Higher, university life offers a big boost to intangible social skills too. These skills may be far more difficult to quantify than the modules you took or your degree classification. But the study finds that they’re among the most important things a university has to offer.

What social skills does university improve, and how do the researchers know?

The team behind the research tracked the impact of university education on personality traits in five key areas:

  • emotional stability;
  • openness to experience;
  • conscientiousness;
  • extroversion; and
  • agreeableness.

It found a significant correlation between a university education and both the extroversion and agreeableness traits. Strikingly, the effect appears to be cumulative. The longer you attend university, the more agreeable and extroverted you become!

The researchers used data from a longitudinal Australian study, Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA), a survey that tracks high school leavers from across the social spectrum, through Higher Education and into work and adulthood. The study is a big deal because it’s thought to provide the first empirical evidence that university benefits non-cognitive skills in addition to the skills it’s explicitly designed to teach.

Is an Australian study applicable to Higher Education in the UK, and what does it tell us?

There are many similarities between the Higher Education sectors in Australia and the UK, but some differences too. The same applies to the wider demographics addressed by the study. But while some of the variables would probably come out differently if the study were run in the UK, the trends it identifies are likely to be equally applicable here too.

The study doesn’t identify any particular feature of the curriculum as responsible for the uptick in social skills. The study found no correlation between any particular discipline and increased agreeableness and introversion. The message? What you study doesn’t make much difference. It’s simply being at university that counts.

Campus life exposes students to a wider range of cultural groups and perspectives than they’d otherwise encounter. It allows them to interact with diverse groups of people and participate in a broad range of activities that they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. And these activities aren’t just academic. Think of all the clubs and extra-curriculars a university student engages in over the course of their degree.

Perhaps the most significant finding for the current debates around Higher Education relates to economic background. The study found that students from underprivileged backgrounds start out with far lower measurements for extroversion and agreeableness than their more privileged counterparts. But over the course of a university degree, these students experience a much steeper increase in these skills and catch up quickly.

This will be music to the ears of those who suggest as many people as possible should go to university. And it’s a powerful argument against suggestions that too many people are already going to university and we need to cap student numbers.

Advocates of university education have long claimed the benefits of taking a degree extend beyond syllabus content. But the intangible benefits most frequently discussed are things like “critical thinking”, which are still intellectual in nature. The new study is different in offering up evidence that just talking to different people, hanging out on campus and experiencing the richness of student life is more than just a fun time. By developing your social skills in measurable ways it provides the best possible preparation for work – and life!