Page last updated at 13:57 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Call to scrap 50% university student target

Families need to save for university costs, say graduate recruiters

The government target of getting 50% of people under 30 into higher education should be scrapped, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has said.

It also wants a phased increase in student top-up fees by 2020, with safeguards for disadvantaged families.

AGR's chief executive Carl Gilleard said the proposals would help "reaffirm the value of a degree".

But the lecturers' University and College Union said fewer graduates would not benefit the economy.

Higher standards

The government's target to get 50% of under-30s into higher education has "driven down standards and devalued the currency of a degree and damaged the quality of the university experience", according to the AGR report.

"The focus must shift back to quality rather than quantity," it says.

It argues that lifting the cap on university tuition fees, which from next year will be £3,290 per year in England, is "inevitable".

But it says it should be removed in stages, and fees should only be repayable when a graduate is earning more than £15,000 or the equivalent taking inflation into account.

Families should be encouraged to save for higher education through a national savings scheme, it adds.

They should also be given better information by universities about the relative value of their degree courses and the employment outcomes of their graduates.

The association is also in favour of more work experience for students before and during university.

And it wants tax breaks for employers of new graduates and a streamlined visa process for employers who recruit international graduates.

Mr Gilleard said: "This package of measures is the best way to drive up standards in higher education, provide better return on investment for students and parents and ensure the UK remains competitive in a global knowledge economy."

'Family burden'

All these targets have done is to water down degrees; if 50% of jobs had required graduates then there may have been some point to it

The University and College Union, which represents lecturers and academics, said it was disappointed by the recommendations.

Its general secretary Sally Hunt said: "The future for the UK is at the forefront of a high-skilled knowledge economy and we won't get there with less graduates.

"The three main beneficiaries of higher education have been identified as the state, the individual and the employer, yet only two of them are picking up the bill.

"It is time that business started to make a proper contribution to university funding, instead of parroting its siren calls to increase the debt of students and the burden on hardworking families struggling in tough economic times."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Business Skills and Innovation said: "The economy needs more - not less - highly skilled young people.

"We have never suggested that 50% of the population should go directly from school to a conventional 3 year degree.

"Many of these people will already be in the workforce, which is why in Higher Ambitions we set out the need for more flexible modes of study."

"Our universities have maintained a world-class reputation for excellence at a time of rapid expansion and we continue to have high levels of graduate employability and consistently high employer and student satisfaction."

As for tuition fees she said the government would not pre-empt the findings of the independent review it had commissioned into higher education funding and student finance. The review is not expected to finish until after the general election.

Students in England and Northern Ireland and non-Welsh residents at universities in Wales have to pay tuition fees of as much as £3,225 a year.

Welsh residents studying in Wales pay fees of £1,285 while there are no tuition fees for Scottish students at institutions in Scotland.

When variable tuition fees were introduced in England in 2006, the government said there would be no lifting of the cap until after a review of their impact had taken place.

Shadow Universities and Skills Secretary David Willetts said the Conservatives agreed the 50% target for higher education should be dropped.

"There shouldn't be artificial top-down government targets," he said.

"However, students do need more information on the courses which are worthwhile and those which are not, so that they can decide for themselves."

AGR has 750 members who employ about 30,000 graduates a year.

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