Undergraduates fear that the Government's drive to get half of young people into university will make degrees worthless and leave them struggling to get a good job after graduation, an official report revealed yesterday.
Students, who on average now graduate owing £21,500, believe that they will be forced to take on more debt to study for a postgraduate qualification to make them stand out in the jobs market.
The findings will make worrying reading for ministers who have pledged to have 50 per cent of young people studying for a degree by 2010. John Denham, the Universities Secretary, has insisted the target will be stuck to despite conceding that the Government is now unlikely to reach it.
Students' fears about their employability emerged as part of a "student listening programme" by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which held five focus groups, or "student juries", around the country.
Their report, published yesterday, warned: "Jurors were concerned that, if the number of students participating in higher education continues to increase, having a degree may not actually increase your employability in future and that students would be forced to undertake, at more expense, postgraduate study to maintain a competitive edge with potential employers."
Students on the London jury complained that there was a shortage of good graduate jobs and that the Government's drive to increase student numbers would only make the situation worse. "What are the chances of me getting a good job and what is the worth of my degree in the job market?" asked one person.
Students also told the Manchester jury that the increasing numbers were "having a negative effect" on teaching quality and student services as university budgets became more stretched. "Many classes are large and impersonal," said one student.
Another said: "This target that the Government has to get 50 per cent of students into higher education is putting too much pressure on my university and I think the quality of teaching is getting worse as they have to employ greater numbers of staff."
However, students in Sheffield said that the best part of their undergraduate experience had been the opportunity to improve their career prospects.
A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), said that getting a degree made financial sense as university graduates enjoyed a £100,000 premium over school leavers during their working lives.
"Higher education remains one of the best ways to ensure a fulfilling and successful career, as well as a brighter financial future," the spokesman said.
"Unemployment amongst university leavers remains very low as employers continue to appreciate the highly developed skills and talents that all graduates bring to their businesses. Graduates can expect to earn considerably more over their careers than those workers without a degree. The average graduate earns comfortably over £100,000 net of tax more, in today's valuation, compared to someone who just has A-levels."
Wes Streeting, president-elect of the National Union of Students, welcomed the Government's consultation of students but warned that students needed better support and guidance about institutions and courses. He said: "We are pleased that the Government is listening to students through exercises such as these, and we hope that DIUS and the higher education sector act on the issues raised by those students who took part."
Ian Merricks, 29: 'It was more important to experience business'
Ian Merricks decided not to go to university and instead started work aged 18 as a freelance music promoter. Since then he has forged a successful career in the media, and owns a publishing company producing guides for young people...
"When I was looking at going to university it seemed to me that it could be prohibitively expensive. While I had been doing my A-levels I had been working part-time as a music promoter then when I finished college the record label offered me a full-time job.
"I thought I'd spend a year as a freelance giving it a go and if it didn't work out I would treat it as a gap year and a useful experience. By the end of the year I employed a couple of staff, had my own office and was running a successful music promotion business.
"My view is that I don't think any of the opportunities I have had have been as a result or not or going to university. It would have been fun to go but in terms of what I wanted to do in media, music and marketing I did not really need a degree. It's been more important for me to get experience of different types of business."
James Baldwin-Webb, 26: 'If I hadn't gone, I'd be in a more senior role by now'
James Baldwin-Webb achieved a 2:1 degree in molecular biology at Kent University in 2003 and hoped to pursue a career in cancer research. Today he has student debts of £10,000, works in advertising and believes that he would have been better off if he had gone straight into work...
"I largely think that doing that particular degree was a waste of time. I enjoyed doing it but when I graduated it was impossible to get the sort of job I wanted because although I had a degree I didn't have the experience they wanted. Then I found that I actually enjoyed elements of the part- time job that I had in a computer games shop more than I enjoyed being in the lab. I found I was really good at selling to customers and at getting them what they wanted. I liked that interaction much more than doing lab work. I think there's a lot of pressure on people to go to university when it might not be the best choice for everyone. If I hadn't gone to university I'd be three years further on in my current career and would be in a more senior role by now. I don't think I learnt any skills at university that have helped me in my career. I'm sure that my thinking was refined during my time at university but I think that would have happened just as well through training in the workplace."