Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

University target under pressure

By Mike Baker

The UK is behind the USA on university participation

Why is it that we always want our own children to go to university yet so many of us seem to think it's a bad idea for the majority of other people's children to do so?

This week the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) called on all political parties to scrap the target of getting 50% of young people into higher education.

Setting aside the oddity of why a group whose main purpose is to employ graduates should wish to shrink the pool of talent available to them, this seemed a strange move.

Yes, of course, the 50% target set by Tony Blair 10 years ago was somewhat arbitrary. It is, after all, a conveniently round number. But it was always meant less as an exact prescription than a broad aspiration for more people to have some experience of higher education, not necessarily a traditional three year degree, by the time they are 30.

There has been real progress. In the 1960s, just 5% went to university. Now it is 43%.

But this still leaves us well behind many other countries where graduation rates are considerably higher. These countries are not basket-cases, where politicians force universities to accept young people from some perverse desire for social engineering. No, they are all leading industrial nations, such as the USA, Canada, Korea and Japan.


Indeed, far from forcing the pace on university expansion, the UK is now slipping behind in the international graduate league table as other countries expand faster than us.

According to OECD figures, in 2000 the UK ranked third for the proportion of young people graduating from university. By 2007, the UK had fallen to 13th. What's more, if you look at the proportion of the population aged 25 to 34 who have a degree, the UK ranks only 17th in the world.

So why is it still so popular to knock the idea of more young people aspiring to go to university?

Yes, it is true, there are graduates who are either unemployed or who are not working in what is traditionally considered a graduate level job. It is also true that they have often graduated with student loans to pay off - although these only become "debts" once they start to earn over £15,000 a year.

But remember, we are in one of the most severe economic recessions for generations. Employment will recover. And the new jobs that come along will not be manual and semi-skilled jobs, in the old heavy industries, but will be technical, professional and managerial jobs for which graduates will have an advantage over others.

There is far more to staying on in education than just preparing for work

Remember too that there is far more to staying on in education than just preparing for work. The benefits of learning at a higher level go much wider than just a job ticket. I know if my children were in school now I would still want them to go to university, providing - of course - they had the ability to benefit from it and the desire to go.

And while it may seem arbitrary to say 50% should go to university, it would be more perverse to say we should aim to have fewer people going to university now than in the past. It seems heartless to slam the door on suitably qualified university applicants after years of encouraging them to aim for higher education.

This year it is estimated that, because of the surge in applications, over 200,000 qualified applicants who would have got into university a few years ago will not get a place.

The AGR says the growth in student numbers has "systematically eroded" the value of a degree. But is that really true? Is a good degree from Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham or Manchester devalued just because there are now more young people from other universities who can call themselves graduates? I don't think so.

student at keyboard
"Getting a degree is an investment"

It was never the case that all degrees were of the same currency when it came to getting a job. The degree subject, the class of degree and the type of university have always made a difference to employers.

But just because some degrees open more doors than others it does not mean that the rest are without value.

The AGR is right to say that university applicants should be given realistic information about the relative value of courses and should be able to see the employment destinations of previous students. Getting a degree today is an investment - and it is likely to be a more expensive investment in future - so choices should be carefully weighed.

In some cases, people may well be making the right decision to go straight into the job market or to take the apprenticeship route. But 50% of people getting degrees does not seem too high. But for the future economy it may be too low.

Of course, the irony is that the AGR has made their call to scrap the 50% target just as many believe the government has, in the words of one vice-chancellor this week, "effectively abandoned the target". This is because the government's public spending squeeze will mean a reduction in student places this summer, just when applications have soared to a level that could have brought us much closer to the 50% target.


Moreover, the Universities Secretary, Lord Mandelson, now prefers to talk about a different target: getting 75% of young people staying on in either higher or further education or undertaking an apprenticeship. But this week I pressed the Higher Education Minister, David Lammy, about whether the target had been dropped. He insisted it had not.

What's more the Conservatives, who in the past criticised the 50% figure, have dropped their opposition. While they prefer not to set a specific target, they do believe in expanding the numbers going to university.

At a university leaders' conference this week, I pressed the Shadow Universities' Secretary, David Willetts, about whether he agreed with the AGR's opposition to expanding student numbers. He told me the AGR were "wrong to be against more going to university".

At the same conference, the chairman of the CBI's higher education task force and CEO of Centrica, Sam Laidlaw, said a shortage of graduates in science, technology and mathematics subjects "could leave the UK as a laggard as the world economy recovers".

What's more, as he pointed out, two-thirds of employers do not look for a specific degree when recruiting graduates.

So, if you are after a general professional or managerial career, and providing you can show the communication and problem-solving skills that employers seek, it does not matter whether your degree is in engineering or history, Greek or media studies.

In the past, when a tiny minority of people went to university, degrees offered rare distinctiveness in the job market.

Just because a young person with a degree is no longer such a rarity, it does not follow that we should try to stop the growing numbers of university applicants from continuing to train and expand their minds.

Print Sponsor

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