Although there are signs that the rapid growth of the past 10 years has slowed down - certainly in Britain, where the Government has pulled up the drawbridge - many observers say the demand for a university education will go on increasing. "We think the demand is inexorable," says Malcolm Skilbeck, deputy director of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, who has been labouring over a 10-nation report on higher education to be published in the spring. "The evidence is overwhelming."
Behind the burgeoning demand lie four new phenomena. One is the fact that increasing numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds are staying on at secondary- school level. That feeds the desire for higher education. But there is another, less comforting point: the youth employment market has collapsed, which means a choice between higher education or the dole. In that context the decision to become a graduate makes perfect sense.
Thirdly, going to university has become the cool thing to do. Just as college became the place for American youth to hang out during the Fifties and Sixties, so the same message has spread around youth networks in Europe. Savvy would-be students know which universities boast the best night-life, which have the lowest living expenses, and which superior academic standards.
Finally, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and even grannies are enrolling for higher education in increasing numbers, either because they missed out when they were younger or because they want to update skills or switch careers.
Is this headlong rush to gain university degrees and other qualifications sensible from an individual's point of view? The short answer is, yes.
"As an individual, the more skilled you are, the more competitive you are, so a graduate, all things being equal, will do better than a non- graduate," says Richard Pearson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University. "That may mean no more than elbowing a non-graduate out of the dole queue."
Peter Scott, Professor of Education at Leeds University, agrees. It is unquestionably better for individuals to have a degree than not to have one, he says. You are likely to achieve higher earnings over your lifetime. "If you are not a graduate now, you are excluded from sections of the labour market."
None of which means that job prospects are necessarily rosy for new graduates. Far from it. Fewer than ever get traditional "graduate jobs". Many go into telesales, secretarial or clerical work. And for many the initial months after graduation are marked by job insecurity and "career turbulence", as the jargon goes. But, according to Oliver Fulton, Professor of Education at Lancaster University, at least having a degree gets you closer to acquiring a "middle-class job" nowadays.
The experts are uncertain, however, about whether it is desirable for the country to expand higher education beyond the current 32 per cent participation rate (the percentage of the 18-to-25 age group going to university). Malcolm Skilbeck of the OECD is in no doubt that it is desirable. For him, the optimum rate is 100 per cent. That doesn't mean that everybody should get a university degree, he explains, but that everyone should have access to continuing education throughout their lives.
Richard Brown, director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, asserts that if the future economic success of Britain is in brainpower and added value, we must invest in higher education. "There is demand out there," he says.
Others are less sure, if only because it is unclear how further expansion would be funded. Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, says funding is the key issue. Once a mechanism has been found to make higher education users contribute towards the cost of their education, demand can find its own level, he argues.
Most observers, including Mr Skilbeck, agree that the taxpayer should not foot the bill and that students themselves, and their parents or employers, should invest in such self-improvement by repaying tuition fees, possibly through income-related loans. (Students in Britain do not pay for tuition, an issue that Sir Ron Dearing is supposed to be tackling in his review.)
"I would not put any more public money into higher education," says Mr Pearson of Sussex University. "Skill shortages exist at technician and lower levels, and the Government would do better to invest money in primary and secondary education to fill those skill gaps, than to invest further in the elite."
Gareth Williams, a professor at London's Institute of Education, says much the same thing. We don't need more higher education, but we could probably do with more further education, he thinks, for people who want to update their skills.
But costs and economic benefits are only part of the picture. There is evidence that education brings benefits which are non-economic, or only indirectly economic. Twenty years ago the Carnegie Council in America published research by Howard Bowen showing that higher education meant people made fewer demands on the public purse. Graduates had lower divorce rates and enjoyed better health than those who didn't go to college, and their children did better at school. Other research, conducted in Britain more recently, has shown that graduates display more tolerance than people who don't go to university.
On balance, most experts - particularly, as you might expect, vice-chancellors and employers - are in no doubt that higher education benefits the economy. (The CBI wants to see the participation rate in higher education increase to 40 per cent.) The snag is that no one can prove the link. Moreover, a couple of provocative academics - James Murphy, a lecturer in education at Lancaster University, and Thomas Lange, a lecturer at Robert Gordon University in Scotland - dispute the correlation between higher education and economic success.
According to Mr Lange, who is German by origin, the UK needs more investment in primary and secondary schooling, not more higher education. More higher education would simply lead to a lowering of academic standards and to a fall in graduate employment prospects, he says.
Similarly, James Murphy thinks we have more educated labour than we actually need. "The UK has not for a long time been able to absorb the graduates it currently produces," he wrote in an article in the Oxford Review of Education. The emphasis which the Government and Labour leader Tony Blair have put on education is positively divisive, he says, because it favours the educated at the expense of the less educated.
"It's having the effect in a declining society of turning the once working class into an under-class," he adds. "There are increasingly few opportunities for those who happen not to want a nice set of A-levels."
If government utterances and official reports are anything to go by, Messrs Murphy and Lange are probably whistling in the wind. Anyway, the people seem to want their doses of cod-liver oiln
It doesn't matter to Laura Rafferty that almost all her peers at St Michael's Roman Catholic grammar school in Finchley, north London, are going to university. She has decided she would rather go straight into a fast-track management trainee scheme at KPMG, one of the big six accountancy firms and the only one to offer such a chance.
"I have the option of going into higher education," says Ms Rafferty, 18, who is taking A-levels in maths, economics and physics this summer. "I have applied to university as a back-up in case I don't get a training place, but I would rather go directly to work as an accountant."
Her case may be unusual - and it certainly goes against the current trend. But KPMG is convinced that increasing numbers of young people are having second thoughts about higher education, partly because of the rising cost and the talk about charging for tuition.
However, they are also questioning the value of a degree for another reason. "With so many going to university nowadays, there are people who are saying 'What's the point in having a degree when it doesn't make me stand out from the rest?'" says David Miller, the company's national graduate recruitment partner.
Accountancy is one of the jobs that used to recruit management trainees from school leavers in the Sixties, but has since become virtually an all-graduate profession. KPMG is concerned that people who are questioning the value of a first degree will be lost to them unless they snap them up as school leavers.
This year the company will be recruiting 20 students from schools in the South-east on a starting salary of pounds 11,000, rising to about pounds 20,000 in the final year of a four-year course. That is more than the pounds 17,000 which graduate recruits receive on joining KPMG. The non-graduates will combine hands-on work experience with study for the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants exam.
For Laura Rafferty, that is a more attractive option than going to university for three years and then applying to a firm as a graduate trainee. She will hear in the spring whether she has got a cherished traineeship or whether she will have to fall back on a university placenReuse content