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Does the UK have too many graduates?

Posted by: Marcus Payne
11/01/2017

During a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, former universities minister David Willetts expressed a desire to see 75% of young people attending university. In 2016 alone 522,000 post graduates were accepted to the UK’s universities through UCAS; a total increase of 7000 people (+1%) by this point last year. This figure has grown almost every year over the past three decades. However, there are 3 in 5 graduates in the UK employed in non-graduate roles and the UK has one of the highest levels of self reported over qualifications amongst graduates in Europe.These days’ graduates are finding themselves working in jobs that in previous generations would have been filled by non-graduates. It appears to be a trend that people are overlooked for jobs if they have no degree, even if one isn’t needed.

In England, 42% of today’s young people have entered higher education by age 19. Could this be creating an over-supply of graduates in the UK? Universities UK (UUK) argued that this is not the case because the economy requires a greater number of higher qualified workers, and that people are underestimating the future for graduate talent. Graduates often have a different perspective because finding a job that requires the knowledge and skills built up from 3-5 years of degree work is difficult in the current market. Whether this situation has arisen from poor degree choices and in turn developed the wrong sort of higher-level skills, it is clear that graduates are occupying more and more jobs that once belonged to their non-graduate parents.

Imagine that the hierarchy of jobs has remained unchanged over time, then as the graduation population expands graduates filter down this hierarchy and as a result, drive down the average graduate wage. This inclination has then resulted in non-graduates moving further down the hierarchy and further reducing their average wage also. One argument is that students are spoilt for choice and some people end up choosing ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees. These degrees are considered as “worthless” and “irrelevant” when entering the job market, and in new terms are available to be ‘bought and sold’. Students are ‘sold’ the degrees with the expectation of being able to climb higher up the career ladder at a faster rate and start at a higher salary. The majority of graduates are now beginning to have the same career expectations as Doctors and Lawyers, who earn as much as they do when they graduate because of the sheer amount of knowledge and skill required to do the job.

Factor in student debt, which reached a whole new level a few years ago when students started borrowing up to £9000 a year for tuition, and the apparent career mismatches, some degrees now look like bad value for money. Education minister Margaret Hodge was the first person to highlight this issue in higher educations expansion; where the degree itself does not have much relevance in the labour market. Such examples of this are modern dance, media studies and even stretching to art and photography. Combine this with a ropey institution and you have a completely different ball game. Some institutions give students a false pretence, but some students also view their time at university as a 3 year holiday, and often end up in no better position, or worse off than they were before. This factor is not just down to the students because it’s hard for them to choose between university and going straight into work, when government ministers are constantly encouraging them to sign up to higher education in the first place.

The best advice is to only go ahead with the degree if you are really passionate about what you are about to study. Do your research and think how this will benefit you in the future. Take some time to look into the market and contact people who have completed the same degree. Find out from recent graduates how difficult it was for them to get a job after university in the career they wanted and if they re using the skill set acquired for the role they are currently in. If you need that degree to pursue your dream job then there’s no doubt that you should go ahead. Finally, don’t be pressured into a higher education by anyone else because in some industries you will get further relying on experience and who you know, not what you’ve studied.

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