Higher Education: A few jobs, but little satisfaction: More graduates are having to do low-level work. John Thurman, a careers adviser, assesses the market

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The Independent Online
Earlier this year, a CBI report* made a case for increasing the participation rate in higher education from 30 to 40 per cent of school-leavers by the year 2000, and possibly to 50 per cent thereafter, based largely on the need for a more highly qualified workforce.

Is it possible to justify this optimism about the capacity of the economy to find satisfying paid employment for a large population of graduates? As a university careers adviser, my answer - based on the experience of thousands of clients - is 'No'.

A better chance of a satisfying life, perhaps, but it would be a disservice to students to lead them to believe that gaining a degree - especially in a less vocational subject - will provide the guarantee of a good job in the traditional sense. Ask anyone who has graduated recently.

Official statistics this summer showed a rise in the numbers in permanent employment. But there is a growing proportion of graduates in low-level jobs taken because there was nothing better or to clear debts.

This phenomenon is recognised by all university careers services but is rarely reported. If we add these low-level 'permanent' jobs to the unemployed and short-term employed, and call the resulting total 'unsatisfactory employment', a more realistic employment picture emerges from the statistical fog.

Every year, employment patterns for graduates of different degree subjects fall into three clear groups vocational, semi-vocational or non-vocational.

Vocational subjects - such as medicine, engineering, education, business studies - are characterised by a relatively high proportion entering good jobs and small percentages continuing with further study or failing to find satisfactory work.

Semi-vocational subjects - such as pure sciences, modern languages, psychology - tend to produce intermediate percentages in good jobs, a large proportion continuing with further study and a medium-to-low percentage failing to find satisfactory work.

Non-vocational (academic) subjects, such as English, history, classics and politics, generally produce roughly equal proportions in good jobs, further study, and unsatisfactory employment.

Most severely hit by the recession have been graduates in vocational/technical subjects. From a buoyant employment market in 1990, graduates in architecture and related subjects suffered a reduction from 70 per cent to 53 per cent entering satisfactory jobs, and an increase from 7 per cent to 25 per cent in the unsatisfactory employment category, in just two years as the construction industry went into free fall.

The large group of engineering and technology graduates fared nearly as badly, with only just over half of them finding good jobs in 1993 (down from nearly three-quarters in 1990), while unsatisfactory employment grew from 8 per cent to over 20 per cent, as recruitment was cut back in construction, chemicals and defence-related industries.

Graduates in medicine and dentistry were the only vocationally trained group to remain almost unscathed, although the market for education graduates has also held up. In the pure sciences and mathematics, there has been a clear move into further study as a first step, which mops up more than half of the graduates in chemistry and physics, but despite this the number unsatisfactorily employed had, by 1993, reached the levels of humanities graduates in 1990.

Business studies and economics have seen their previously strong position eroded, but less dramatically than engineering and technology. In the non-vocational humanities and social science subjects, the number unsatisfactorily employed had, by 1993, outstripped the number in good jobs. Further study absorbed many, but limits were set by lack of funding for additional courses.

Apart from medicine and education, the graduates who seem to be riding out the recession most easily are modern linguists, where the figures show only a moderate decline. Psychologists did relatively well over the same period.

Architects have bounced back, with figures for 1993 recovering to the level of 1991. Business studies and economics graduates have also shown a modest improvement in 1993. Modern languages and psychology have both regained some lost ground despite having been less adversely affected in the first place.

In contrast, the decline in the fortunes of engineering, technology, maths and physics continued in 1993 - no sign of recovery for them. Planning a course of study based on a precise forecast of employment outcome is difficult, if not impossible. Students on vocational/professional degree courses can expect to be in a relatively strong position compared to other graduates, but they need to be much more flexible than before. There is no longer a safe assumption (except for medics and perhaps teaching students) that a related job will be easily available.

Those who are genuinely motivated to study subjects such as English, politics, history or philosophy will, quite rightly, continue to do so. But they should be under no illusion about the new realities of employment patterns, which many believe to have changed permanently.

Statistically, they are now more likely to be unemployed or in a temporary or low-level job six months after leaving university, than in a good job.

It will be up to individuals to make university a positive experience for its own sake, and also to seek ways of increasing employability by gaining useful skills and experiences outside academic study, and by planning constructively for what may be an extended period of underemployment before finding a satisfying niche for themselves in the new work environment of the 21st century.

* 'Thinking Ahead', CBI 1994.

The author is deputy director of the University of East Anglia Careers Centre. He is writing in a personal capacity.

(Photograph omitted)