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Huge increase in number of graduates 'bad for UK economy'

Mismatch of skills and labour market as university education keeps growing is bad for students and employers, suggests CIPD 

The government is being urged to end the political drive to get more people into university after new research showed that graduates are “colonising” jobs in banking, education, the police and estate agency that were the preserve of school-leavers in the past. 

 The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – which represents people working in human resources – said the all-party consensus to get more young people into higher education was no longer justified given student debt and the careers many ended up pursuing. Successive governments have said that rising university numbers are justified by a graduate premium – higher lifetime earnings that more than compensate for tuition fees and living expenses. But the CIPD said the notion of a tertiary education premium is being called into question by graduates’ average debt of £44,000 and official estimates that 45% of loans would never be paid off. 


Noting that its previous research had shown more than half of graduates take non-graduate jobs, the CIPD said the current system was not just bad for many of those who had been to university but also for school-leavers who were overlooked for jobs that did not require a degree. Its study of 29 occupations employing almost a third of the UK’s workforce found: 35% of bank and post office clerks have degrees, 10 times the percentage in 1979. 43.9% of police officers entering the force at the rank of sergeant or below have a university qualification, up from 2% in 1979. 41% of new jobs in property, housing and estate management are graduates, compared with 3.6% in 1979. 

 The number of newly-employed teaching assistants with a degree has increased from 5.6% to 36.9% since 1979. The CIPD said that in 1979 around 12% of young people in the UK were involved in higher education. This figure had risen fourfold to 48% by 2014-15, it added. Advertisement Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: “This report shows clearly how the huge increase in the supply of graduates over the last 35 years has resulted in more and more occupations and professions being colonised by people with degrees, regardless of whether they actually need them to do the job. 

“Governments of all colours have long had a ‘conveyor belt’ approach to university education, with a rhetoric that has encouraged more and more students to pursue graduate qualifications. However, with this research showing that for many graduates, the costs of university education outweigh its personal economic benefits, we need a much stronger focus on creating more high-quality alternative pathways into the workplace, such as higher level apprenticeships, so we really do achieve parity of esteem between the two routes.”

 The CIPD report is likely to intensify the debate about whether university courses are good value for all students. Supporters of the current approach say that limiting numbers would result in higher education being dominated by children from better-off families, and that courses increasingly have a vocational bent to prepare young people better for their careers. But the CIPD said the Brexit vote made it important for the government to take stock of policy towards higher education and skills. 

 It called on ministers to improve the quality of careers advice to ensure young people are better informed about their future careers; a shift in emphasis on apprenticeships to make quality of courses a higher priority than the numbers involved; and a clear focus in the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy on creating more high-skilled jobs. But the CIPD said the notion of a tertiary education premium is being called into question by graduates’ average debt of £44,000 and official estimates that 45% of loans would never be paid off. 

Noting that its previous research had shown more than half of graduates take non-graduate jobs, the CIPD said the current system was not just bad for many of those who had been to university but also for school-leavers who were overlooked for jobs that did not require a degree. Its study of 29 occupations employing almost a third of the UK’s workforce found: 35% of bank and post office clerks have degrees, 10 times the percentage in 1979. 43.9% of police officers entering the force at the rank of sergeant or below have a university qualification, up from 2% in 1979. 41% of new jobs in property, housing and estate management are graduates, compared with 3.6% in 1979. The number of newly-employed teaching assistants with a degree has increased from 5.6% to 36.9% since 1979. 

The CIPD said that in 1979 around 12% of young people in the UK were involved in higher education. This figure had risen fourfold to 48% by 2014-15, it added. Advertisement Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: “This report shows clearly how the huge increase in the supply of graduates over the last 35 years has resulted in more and more occupations and professions being colonised by people with degrees, regardless of whether they actually need them to do the job. 

“Governments of all colours have long had a ‘conveyor belt’ approach to university education, with a rhetoric that has encouraged more and more students to pursue graduate qualifications. However, with this research showing that for many graduates, the costs of university education outweigh its personal economic benefits, we need a much stronger focus on creating more high-quality alternative pathways into the workplace, such as higher level apprenticeships, so we really do achieve parity of esteem between the two routes.” 

The CIPD report is likely to intensify the debate about whether university courses are good value for all students. Supporters of the current approach say that limiting numbers would result in higher education being dominated by children from better-off families, and that courses increasingly have a vocational bent to prepare young people better for their careers. But the CIPD said the Brexit vote made it important for the government to take stock of policy towards higher education and skills. 

 It called on ministers to improve the quality of careers advice to ensure young people are better informed about their future careers; a shift in emphasis on apprenticeships to make quality of courses a higher priority than the numbers involved; and a clear focus in the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy on creating more high-skilled jobs.

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