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Professors Ruth Lea and Roderick Floud
Professors Ruth Lea and Roderick Floud

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

PETER SISSONS: This week thousands of A level students are celebrating their results, contemplating their future lives at university. It seems like these are the annual backdrop to the traditional row over standards at schools. But many are rightly euphoric having got the grades the need, many more are desperately chasing thousands of empty places through clearing. But is there a danger they will take anything on offer? What's the real value of a university degree these days? Will it really make you more employable? Or are you often just wasting your time and money? Ruth Lea is former, is a former business studies lecturer, now a spokesman for the employers' organisation, the Institute of Directors, and Professor Roderick Floud, is from the umbrella group, Universities UK and also the provost of London Guildhall University. Good morning to you both. Ruth, the rush is on for all these thousands of empty places at universities. What's it about, making people more employable or keeping universities in work?

RUTH LEA: Well, it's a bit of both, let's be honest. And of course a lot of people go to university because for a liberal education, like sometimes when you talk about universities it seems to be all about employabilities and so I'd like to make that point first. But obviously employability is a very important point and if people are looking to make themselves more employable I think they really ought to think twice before they just rush into a university course. I think in many ways there's far too much pressure on them to go and do that. It's either peer group pressure or it's parental pressure or it's the university saying, we've got all these places, come and join us and of course the government itself is looking for a 50% target of 18-30 year olds going to university. But from our perspective I would put a note of caution because if you go to, perhaps, one of the less regarded institutions, you do a degree that's perhaps not particularly vocational or not particularly intellectually stretching and you end up with a poor class of degree, you could end up actually very badly placed within the jobs market. In fact worse off even if you'd not gone to university at all.

RODERICK FLOUD: What's your evidence for that, Ruth? I don't think there is any evidence. People who go to university earn on average at the moment 60% more than those who don't. They get jobs more easily, there are plenty of jobs. Your employers, if I may put it that way, at the Institute of Directors, are actually advertising lots of graduate jobs. They want graduates because of what they bring with them.

PETER SISSONS: But do they, do they want graduates in some of the courses that are available? I mean, at the University of Central Lancashire you can do a course in football managership. Well there's hardly many of those jobs available. Then hospitality studies, with Caribbean studies at the University of North London, three-year course. A three-year course in youth studies at the University of Teesside.

RODERICK FLOUD: Well, football is one of our biggest industries and there are plenty of demands for people to manage, not just obviously the premier leagues, there are not many of those jobs, but there are plenty of other management jobs and managing football grounds, managing sports. Catering is an enormous industry. Of course we want people who are well qualified to manage those industries.

PETER SISSONS: Might it not be in the national interest however to train people on the job? Why, why, why have a degree in catering? Wouldn't it be better off, at 18, or 17, going into a big establishment and letting your employer teach you?

RODERICK FLOUD: Well unfortunately British employers have not been very good at providing training¿

RUTH LEA: That's not fair.

RODERICK FLOUD: And compared with German or French employers they're not really as committed to training at the younger ages. They like ¿

RUTH LEA: A tad unfair, if I may say so.

PETER SISSONS: The central point to put to you is really, is the policy of expanding student numbers actually giving us a better workforce? Now the CBI supports it. What about the IOD?

RUTH LEA: Well, we don't support it. I think the expansion of graduate numbers has probably gone too far already. You've got 33% going on. And I hear what Professor Floud says about the average increase in what students can get, what graduates can get. But I'm not talking about the average and I'm not talking about the, the particularly well-placed graduates. I'm talking about some graduates who will be going into these lesser institutions, getting a poor class of degree, with subjects I'm afraid the employers don't regard. I mean, whatever Professor Floud, whether he'd like me to or not, and the question is will their employability prospects be increased by going on to university? And taking on £10,000 of debt into the bargain.

PETER SISSONS: Now, there's a point, Roderick. The burden of student debts now is burgeoning, it's a huge hidden problem. A lot of people coming out of university with degrees which frankly are not worth a lot, if they're not in a proper subject which grabs employers. And burdened by debt, which they have little or no chance of paying back. Now that must worry you.

RODERICK FLOUD: Firstly graduates do get jobs. Ruth says that's it's only the marginal students she's talking about. It's actually very difficult to tell who a marginal student is. I taught people at Cambridge who did very badly and fell out and I've taught people at Birkbeck College in London which deals with mature students, who were previously drop-outs who do make an enormous success and get degrees.

PETER SISSONS: Would you accept that training has become a dirty word ¿


PETER SISSONS: that university is not for everyone? It may suit a lot of people, a lot of kids to get on the work ladder, start in work training and avoid this burden of debt, start earning as well.

RODERICK FLOUD: Of course it's not for everyone. I wouldn't

RUTH LEA: Precisely.

PETER SISSONS: But the government almost wants to get ¿

RODERICK FLOUD: It is for a lot of people and all the evidence as I say is that the graduates that we currently produce do get jobs and because they get well paid jobs it's a good investment for them. So in terms of the debt, although they are building up debts, those debts can be paid off over a long period. You only start to pay off the debt once you earn quite a lot of money. And you're going to make enough money in the course of your career to justify that investment.

RUTH LEA: Well, that's your choice, isn't it? But I would say ¿

PETER SISSONS: Do they actually get jobs, really, is the point Roderick is making true that most graduates in whatever it is get jobs? Do they get jobs when the job market is going down, at the moment it's going down?

RUTH LEA: Well, that's right. If the market is good obviously they will get jobs. But it was interesting there was a study by the Institute of Employment Studies, this was done about 1998, which suggested that three-fifths of graduates actually went into non-graduate employment, in other words their degree didn't actually add very much to them. And in fact I've spoken to a lot of employers and they have said that rather than have a new graduate who's been three years at university with a slightly dubious degree, they prefer to have a school leaver and then train them up. Because part of the problem taking on a graduate is they have graduate expectations, even if you can't give them a graduate job. And I know from personal experience, it can actually be very very difficult. Because they all say, you know, you give me a graduate job. I say I can't give you a graduate job because quite frankly you're not up to it.

RODERICK FLOUD: But it's exactly those employers who are advertising lots of graduates of jobs. So the market, you normally believe in the market, the market is actually showing it works.

RUTH LEA: I believe in the market, and what I am saying to you is that if you look at some studies then quite a good proportion, in fact, in the case of this particular study, the majority of 'graduates' were not in graduate jobs. They just weren't there.

RODERICK FLOUD: Well, I've just seen another estimate which puts it at a much lower figure than that and even that included a lot of post-graduates.

RUTH LEA: We can argue whether it's three-fifths, we can argue whether it's a quarter, but let's not spend our time arguing about that but the point is it is clear that some graduates are not going into graduate jobs.

PETER SISSONS: At one stage of course, we'll be able to answer these questions definitively but we need I suspect a lot more experience about some of these courses, of where the people who do them are ending up.

RODERICK FLOUD: I think the other point is that because they are graduates they actually make more at the jobs that they go into. They may start off in jobs that don't appear to be graduate but they contribute and make something of their lives and their jobs.

RUTH LEA: It's not been my experience.

PETER SISSONS: Roderick Floud, Ruth Lea, thank you very much indeed.

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