Thursday, 12 August 2010

Universities, graduates, and jobs

It looks as though a significant number of young people who want to go to university, and who have obtained good enough A level results to do so, are going to be disappointed this year when they find that there are not enough places available for them. And it won't simply be a case of those who obtain the lowest grades being excluded either - depending on the choice of university and subject, many of those rejected could actually possess better grades than many of those accepted.

It raises big questions about how many places should be provided at universities, and how they should be filled.

It seems to me that there are two fairly rational ways of determining how many places should be provided in total. The first is to look at the number of people who want to have a university education, and who meet the minimum requirements; the second is to look at the number of jobs requiring graduates, and only provide enough places to meet that demand. We are actually doing neither of those things; we are setting the number of places based primarily on the cost of providing them.

I make no secret of the fact that I favour the approach of providing the education for all those who want it and meet the minimum requirements. A better educated population has advantages well beyond the merely economic.

But I also think we need to get away from the idea that there are 'graduate jobs' and 'non-graduate jobs'. Of course there are some jobs where a particular degree qualification is an absolute requirement – medicine is the one which immediately springs to mind. But in many cases, employers restricting their openings to graduates are doing so unnecessarily. It's sometimes little more than a lazy way of sifting and grading people.

As a concrete example, I remember having a bit of a battle with HR professionals many years ago when I wanted to recruit non-graduates as computer programmers. We were having difficulty getting the numbers we needed, and I just didn't see that a degree was as relevant as having the basic aptitude and ability. I won the battle, and the people I went on to recruit turned out to be, on the whole, just as effective as the graduates.

Many graduates themselves are already having to recognise that if they want to restrict themselves to jobs labelled as being for graduates, then they are restricting their career chances. And many of those being rejected by universities this year will be every bit as able and competent as those accepted, but will be available for work three years earlier than their successful schoolmates. Employers who ignore that pool of talent will be doing themselves no favours in the long term. Judging people on their abilities and experience rather than on possession of a particular piece of paper may be harder to do; but those employers who are prepared to do it will find they have access to a wider range of talent.

Setting unrealistic expectations about the opportunities available to people just because they are graduates; excluding people from consideration just because they aren't; and deciding how many graduates to turn out for financial reasons rather than based either on demand for skills or demand for places are all misguided ways of looking at the benefits of higher education both to individuals and to society as a whole.


The Druid of Anglesey said...

An interesting post, John. Although I completely agree with you that a well educated populace is advantageous I do wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far. The previous administration set a target of 50% of school leavers should go to university - this is I believe substantially higher than the majority of countries and it has always been unclear how they decided on the figure of 50%. The problem as I see it is (a) too many young people now go to university to take degree courses of dubious merit, while those pupils who are not academically minded don't have respected nationally recognised vocational or apprenticeship schemes like those in, say, Germany for instance; (b) it could be argued that this over promotion of attending university is leading to depopulation of rural areas such as where you and I live. It is undoubtably true that more young people leave Anglesey to go to University than eventually return, because (a) there are few graduate jobs on Anglesey and (b) because the outside world they experience at University is more attractive to the young. These intelligent young people are, presumably, those who in earlier generations would have stayed close to where they were brought up and set up small businesses or opened shops etc - now they head to Cardiff or London instead.

John Dixon said...

I agree that the figure of 50% looks entirely arbitrary. I suspect it's set from a budgetary perspective rather than from any consideration of demand.

And I also agree that there is a second class status associated with more vocational qualifications which is not found elsewhere in Europe. That 'status gap' is something which we need to address (and differential charging of fees between the two types of education, and/or a graduate tax serve only to emphasise the different values placed on the two types of education, in my view).

But I wouldn't agree that 'too many young people now go to university'; I firmly believe that if people have the ability and the desire to follow a university education, then they should have the opportunity to do so. But, the higher the proportion of young people attending university, the more we need to 're-set' their expectations about 'graduate jobs' being available to them afterwards.

I'd also agree that educating our talented young people can and does lead them to leave rural areas and seek opportunities elsewhere, but I could not for one moment support the idea that we should tell them that they can't have the education they want because we need them to stay uneducated in their own communities. I'm sure that you weren't really suggesting that, but it is one potential consequence of the line of argument which you advance; and a consequence which I would strongly oppose.

The Druid of Anglesey said...


No I am not making the argument that able and academically gifted persons shouldn't go to University. What I'm saying is that an arbitrary target of 50% has led to (a) a proliferation of unnecessary courses which offer no discernable value to the students or the country; and (b) because of the lack of a respected alternative non-academic stream, persons who would perhaps be more suited to vocational qualifications have been pushed along to universities instead. The side effects of this has been a depopulation of the countryside - and all the problems that brings now and in the future.

This country needs a two stream educational system, similar to the one in Germany, were there are equally respected academic and vocational streams of higher education which suit the needs of students and the country.

Plaid Panteg said...

I side with Druid a bit on this to be honest.

We need full and equal status between academic and vocational education.

We need to fund the most economically and socially usefully courses (in economic growth areas and in public service needs) fully, but have a well formed graduate tax (with clear upper limits and full amount cut offs).

John Dixon said...

I'd agree that we need a two stream approach, with equal status for both. Perhaps if we had that, the demand for university places would drop; but perhaps not. It leaves unanswered the question, however, of how we decide which people go into one stream and which go into the other. If not on the basis of the choice of the individuals concerned (subject to meeting any entry requirements) then how? Anything other than that means that some people will be denied their education of choice.

John Dixon said...


If funded by agraduate tax, are you therefore suggesting that everyone, whether they have a vocational or a university education, should pay it? That's not what the name suggests to me. And if only the graduates pay it, doesn't that mean that we are placing a different status on the two types of eductaion? And if everyone pays it, regardless of which route they take, then in what sense is it other than an increase in income tax?

Spirit of BME said...

I think Druid has some interesting things to say.
Leaving aside vocational degrees , I sat in a large Britsh company for over 30 years and seeing the quality of the degree intake ( and these were the best of all who had applied) I can only say that about 3% that came into my department "made it" as they say.50% of those had worked previously in their fathers business or something.
As I have said before -Canary Wharf had more degrees per square meter than anywhere else and did they see the Banking crash coming - No - what a shower.

John Dixon said...


Having done a certain amount of graduate recruitment myself, I am not in disagreement. Indeed, I think I made the point in the original post that far too many employers over-value the possession of a degree and under-value other skills and abilities. And there is a real issue as to whether all degrees have the same worth or even attain the same standard. Those are all important points.

But the point which neither yourself nor the Druid have really answered is this: how many university places do we supply, and on what basis do we allocate the privilege of a higher education if there are more people meeting the minimum criteria than there are places available?

I agree with the Druid that the current target of 50% looks entirely arbitrary. I believe it to be based on financial considerations, rather than thinking about what society needs, or what individuals want, or how many people meet the requirements.

The result is that we are turning away people who have the ability and the desire to follow a higher education (which is where my post started), and I think that there's a danger that we waste talent, particularly if employers continue to operate on the 'degree essential' philosophy.

Plaid Panteg said...

"If funded by agraduate tax, are you therefore suggesting that everyone, whether they have a vocational or a university education, should pay it? "

It is a fair question. Personally, I would have different 'parts' to. So ability to pay would alter how much part A would cost, certain 'needed' degree areas could offer a discount in part B etc...

Then the 'offer' from the university would include the full amount payable, then how that is paid back is dependant on earnings. Once that payable limit is reached, then you stop paying.

Vocational training is very different in terms of delivery and how you 'study' is it not? How this is paid for would need a different way. I believe that the big companies that often bemoan the standards of degree students to help fund the training they demand.

This is initial attempt off the top of my head, some deeping thinking would need to be had beyond that.

John Dixon said...


But the more you tweak the system so that the amount collected more closely reflects the education services received, the less it looks like a 'tax'. It looks more and more like a system of charging for education where the tax system is used to collect the fees. That in turn looks increasingly similar to the current system of collecting loan repayments through payroll deductions, just called something different.