They might be dubbed the drudgery graduates. After three years of study, running up thousands of pounds of debt, university leavers are emerging into the workforce to find that the only jobs on offer involve stacking shelves or serving coffee.
More than one in three recent graduates now works in a low-skilled job, up from around a quarter 10 years ago, new figures have shown. Over a third (35.9 per cent) of recent graduates were in non-graduate jobs at the end of 2011 – up from 26.7 per cent in 2001.
But these are among the lucky ones. The figures, from the Office for National Statistics, also showed around a fifth of new graduates are unemployed.
The best-paid graduates are those with degrees in medicine and dentistry, earning more than £21 an hour. The lowest paid are those with degrees in the arts and humanities who earn on average around £12 an hour – about 20 per cent lower than the graduate average.
But there is some good news for graduates – they are paid more and are less likely to be unemployed than those who have not been to university.
The study calculates the typical wage of graduates aged between 21 and 64 to be just over £15 an hour – easily outstripping the average earnings of just under £9 an hour for non-graduates.
At the end of 2011, 86 per cent of all graduates were in work, compared with just 72.3 per cent for non-graduates.
However, recent graduates have been hit hard by the recession. From 2001 until the start of the recession in 2008, recent graduates had a higher employment rate than all graduates – mainly because they were young and looking for work. But since 2008, the employment prospects of recent graduates have worsened so that now they are more likely to be out of work than the average graduate.
That said, figures suggest that the employment prospects of new graduates may be improving. At the end of last year 18.9 per cent of new graduates were out of work, compared with 20.7 per cent at the peak of the recent recession.
The figures are also better than in the recession in the 1990s, when unemployment for new graduates peaked at 26.9 per cent in 1993.
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: "At a time of record youth unemployment it is more important than ever that there are opportunities to develop the education and skills we need for economic recovery."
"These figures will understandably make grim reading for many students and graduates who see their opportunities limited, but the expansion of higher education and long-term investment in our future is infinitely preferable to a growing dole queue and a higher benefits bill."
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: "The recession has hit the job prospects of recent graduates but they are still nearly 20 per cent more likely to be in work than people without degrees.
"A lack of quality jobs has forced more graduates into lower-skilled jobs.
"Raising the skills of UK workers must be accompanied with an industrial strategy focused on boosting high-value industries such as manufacturing. Otherwise public investment in education and the talents of graduates will continue to be wasted."
Case studies: Faces of an overqualified workforce
Steven Dexter, 25, graduated from Huddersfield University in 2010 with a 2.2 in fine art. He works in a Manchester bar
"Art has always been my passion and when I graduated I wanted to work in galleries, ideally as a curator. But it has been very difficult. You need to do a lot of volunteering to have any chance of getting a job in the arts and I just haven't been able to afford that. I work in a bar as a supervisor for something close to the minimum wage. When I first came to Manchester I volunteered at galleries and took on night shifts to leave my days free. But if you work a 12-hour shift from 5pm to 5am it is difficult to get up day after day to volunteer. It runs you into the ground."
"I've ended up doing a brainless job"
Adam coe, 26, graduated with a 2.2 in psychology from Canterbury Christ University in 2011. Currently a temporary post room assistant for a finance company
"It took me seven months after I left university to find my job. During this time I was very depressed and had a deep sense of rejection. It's been demoralising going from something as mentally stimulating as learning psychology, to a job like this – it's basically a brainless job. Also due to the temporary nature of the contract I have, I feel extremely disposable."
"I got an internship as a marketing assistant and it turned into a paid job"
Hannah Lawrence, 22, graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2010 with a 2:1 degree in fashion, marketing and communication. Worked in a Sainsbury's bakery
"You leave university with all these expectations. I found myself in a low-skilled job and worried I should be doing something more relevant to my degree. At Sainsbury's I was a bakery assistant putting the jam into doughnuts – it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. After six months I told myself I had to do something else, so I went to a careers fair. There I met an intern company and got a three-month internship as a marketing assistant. It turned into a paid job and now I do online and digital marketing."
"I got a low-income job to focus on eventually applying for a PhD"
Oliver Hutchings, 23, has a first-class degree in politics, economics and philosophy from York University and has a masters in political philosophy. He works in a café in Scarborough
"I was very interested in academics and politics, I even ran for union president. I was tempted to work in an MP's office but I got a low-income job to focus on eventually applying for a PhD. No way would I want to spend my life in a café but I'm enjoying it more than I thought."