By John Bramwell

27 September 2013 - 09:41

'The UK’s graduates are continuing to find worthwhile graduate jobs in increasing numbers despite the recession.' Photo (c) Yousef AlSudais, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'UK graduates are continuing to find worthwhile jobs despite the recession.' Photo ©

Yousef AlSudais, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Aditya Chakrabortty (The Guardian) claims that university students are the 'latest batch of guinea pigs in an experiment that has already largely failed', because there aren't enough degree-level jobs to absorb them after graduation. The British Council's John Bramwell responds with an inverse interpretation of the facts about graduate success.

Aditya Chakrabortty’s argument in his weekly column 'Why this year's freshers are just part of a failed experiment' contributes to an important and continuing debate on the most effective business models for higher education; and whether we value higher education for developing the whole person, not just the worker. However, Chakrabortty’s analysis has significant shortcomings.

Graduates continue to find graduate jobs, and to an increasing extent

If we are to have a serious public discussion about such an issue, then it is simply untrue that this year’s new students are ‘guinea pigs’ in a doomed experiment. The UK’s graduates are continuing to find worthwhile graduate jobs in increasing numbers despite the recession, their leverage on salary is considerable and improving, and unskilled and unqualified people are losing out much more significantly.

Chakrabortty asserts that one in ten graduates is without a job in the UK. Indeed, but that means that 90 per cent are in work or following further training; a figure that has held stable for the past three years, despite increased unemployment because of the recession, and a figure which has improved steadily since 1998.

Given the article’s own quoted figure of the number of students going into higher education rising from ten per cent to 40 per cent from 1989, the continued improvement in numbers and proportions getting into employment is in fact a remarkably positive achievement.

Chakrabortty quotes the ‘Skills and Unemployment’ study, carried out by the Institute of Education that found that a third (of the jobs in the market) are in sectors that don’t require a degree.

In fact, the number of graduate-level jobs has increased from only ten per cent in 1998 to over 26 per cent today, and the proportion of jobs that do not require any qualifications has dropped from over 30 per cent to just around 23 per cent – a historical low point. So now the number of jobs requiring a degree exceeds the number of unskilled jobs – for the first time ever.

Chakrabortty reminds freshers of a ‘Birmingham graduate despatched to stack shelves and clean floors in Poundland – for free’, but misses the fact that 74 per cent of graduates are in graduate-level jobs in 2012, compared to 69 per cent in 2006. A UK graduate's prospects have in fact been steadily improving.

Graduates earn better

Chakrabortty writes: 'The typical graduate earns £31,000 a year as against £19,000 a year for a non-graduate. Were those claims about the "graduate premium" printed on a roadside billboard, I doubt the Advertising Standards Authority would let them stand.' He goes on to say that 'a man who comes out of university with a BA in history or philosophy will earn an average of only 2.3% a year more than if he'd gone straight into the labour market. If he studies creative arts and design, he'd be 1% worse off.'

The research referenced here is a London Economics report: ‘The Returns to Higher Education’ covering the quantitative gain from investment in higher education. It is an extensive and strongly researched report that explains its research methods in great depth.

The London Economics research makes clear that the average increase in salary is 27.4 per cent for an undergraduate degree compared to a person with two good A-levels. At the highest levels (medicine and dentistry) the figures are 70.1 per cent for men and 91.7 per cent for women.

In every single sector, the figures for university graduates are positive and extensive. Only two of the 40 presented figures are low – men in ‘historical and philosophical studies’, and men in ‘creative arts’; women in these professions are in fact over 19.7 per cent and 11.2 per cent better off respectively.

A degree, although not the sole guarantor of success, is of high value

Ignoring these facts is not only doing the higher education sector in the UK a disservice, but especially the young people who need all our support. If anything, UK students deserve to have accurate information and well-articulated, if differing, perspectives to engage in such a vital debate.

We can agree that an academic degree is not the sole guarantor of success in life - international skills are also important, for example. We can also agree that we must have an education system that provides a broad range of integrated opportunities not only focused on those who go to a university for full-time study at 18. These are the issues we need to talk about. Claiming that a highly valuable, internationally sought-after qualification dooms the owner to failure is inaccurate analysis at best and damaging at worst. I look forward to moving us on from that rhetoric.

In my time spent working for the British Council around the world promoting the UK’s higher education sector – regardless of our economy at home and changing models that fund higher education – for ambitious students, researchers and institutions, the UK is the place to be.

Corrections: Aditya Chakrabortty's name was spelt incorrectly in some instances of this post. This was corrected at 13.01 on 27 September 2013. The London Economics report was also erroneously referred to as the 'London School of Economics' report. This was corrected at 15.37 on 27 September 2013.

You might also be interested in: