Should students, school-leavers and their parents be having second thoughts about going to university?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent
Two reports published this week may provoke some doubts over the financial and career benefits of getting a degree.
Of course, higher education is not just about boosting job prospects. It is also about personal development and intellectual curiosity. And let's not forget it can also be fun.
But the rising cost of getting a degree has certainly focused attention on the profit and loss columns in any calculation of the personal value of a university education.
The "loss" is made up of tuition fees and the delay in starting to earn, while the "profit" comes, in theory, from better jobs and higher salaries.
The first assault on the conventional wisdom of the value of a university degree came with this week's UK Graduate Careers Survey. It painted a rather gloomy view of the employment prospects of current final-year students.
Only just over one third of them expected to get, or at least look for, a "graduate level" job when they leave university this summer.
Of the rest, 26% planned further study, 9% expected to take a temporary job, 19% planned to take time off to travel, and 11% were undecided.
Should surveys like this be taken seriously? Aren't they just about the perceptions of students rather than about the reality of employment demand?
Perhaps this survey is telling us that students who have come through a school career littered with tests and exams simply want a break
Maybe. But this was a very extensive survey, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of almost 16,000 students from those universities which are most highly regarded by graduate employers.
Moreover they were not simply asked for their views on the employment situation but rather what they were actually planning to do when they graduate in a few months' time.
Of course, many of the two-thirds who were not aiming for a graduate-level job now may do so later on.
Perhaps this survey is telling us that students who have come through a school career littered with tests and exams simply want a break before starting work.
Also it is likely that most of the 26% who planned to begin a postgraduate course hope to go on to graduate level jobs when they have completed their further studies.
But the fact remains that the proportion of final-year students planning to go straight into a career job is the lowest since this annual survey began 10 years ago.
Equally, the proportion undertaking further study is at a record high. Some will be getting professional qualifications for direct entry to careers such as teaching. But many are just trying to gain an edge in the crowded graduate job market.
The worrying advice for them is that this doesn't usually work. According to Martin Birchall of High Fliers Research Ltd (which carried out the survey for 35 big graduate employers) it is a "fallacy" to believe employers are keen on postgraduate qualifications.
He says only about 5% of employers are willing to pay more for job applicants with Masters degrees. So, unless the qualification is directly relevant to the post, "it is unlikely to either get you the job or influence the first pay packet".
Further evidence of difficult job prospects for graduates came this week in a report from the British Chambers of Commerce, which represents 135,000 businesses.
The report found that the real skills shortage was not for degree-qualified workers but for skilled technicians in construction, engineering and information technology.
It criticised the government's target of 50% of young people going to university as "arbitrary" and said it reflected the needs of neither the economy nor young people.
The government does envisage that much of the expansion in higher education will be through people taking the relatively new, vocationally-related foundation degrees.
But a new book by two political economists claims the government has "no clear picture" of the future employment demands for graduates.
The government points to other counter evidence which suggest demand for graduates is buoyant
In The Mismanagement of Talent*, Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh question the government's assumptions about the kinds of jobs graduates will end up in.
Phillip Brown, of Cardiff University, warns that graduates now have "an expectation of interesting, well-paid jobs, but many will not find those jobs".
Professor Brown says the 50% target is based on no real evidence of demand. Indeed, his initial analysis suggests graduate incomes are not increasing and "'may even be declining somewhat".
Return on investment
He warns that many people have "invested in their education on a promise they will get a good living" whereas many "will struggle to repay their student loans".
However, the government disagrees and points to other counter evidence which suggest demand for graduates is buoyant.
For example, it highlights the recent Unite/Mori poll of students which found that 95% of current students regarded university as a worthwhile experience.
Supporting this view is a slightly older report, from the OECD, which claimed that the financial "return" on investing in a degree in Britain is one of the highest in the developed world.
However, the OECD study was based on graduate earnings over the past few decades. There is no guarantee that this graduate earnings premium will continue now we are producing many more graduates.
Shift in attitudes?
Maybe, like investing in houses, no-one can be really certain that investing in a degree will continue to be worthwhile.
For the moment, though, the past is the only guide we have to the future. So Britain is in line with other countries in seeking to get more young people into university and there is no sign of a slackening of demand from school-leavers.
But if there is a "crash" in graduate jobs and salaries then that could change, particularly when the £3,000 annual fee becomes the norm in England after 2006.
The government is already softening its 50% target; it now talks of it as something it is working "towards".
But missing the target could prove to be the least of ministers' concerns: if large numbers of graduates find their investment in education produces a negative return, there could be a lot of angry voters around.
* The Mismanagement of Talent - Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy, by Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh, Oxford University Press.
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