As current graduates face disappointment, is it time for alternatives?

  • @laurenjcope

Remember what we were bribed with as kids? “Not done your homework?” “Don’t you want to go to university?” “You won’t get a good job if you don’t.” Having been raised in the belief that burying their heads in books would ultimately lead to a great career, graduates of this generation are finding the reality of life post-university bleak.

The generations before us were raised on benefits and worked in an employment boom and, as university became more and more accessible, it seemed reasonable to preach that high grades and a university place would bring a high earning job and a financially secure future.

However, somewhere between the introduction of tuition fees, floods of new students heading to higher education, the recession and the recent increase of the fees, it is now those who relied on this promise that are feeling the strain, financially and psychologically.

Previously, university was a privilege, an opportunity not to be taken lightly. Now it seems to be open to everyone; inevitable, a right, something done for the experience, and often the nightlife, over the qualification. In 2010-11, an overwhelming 66 per cent of graduates left their studies with a 2:1, throwing students who spent their three years weighed under by textbooks to the middle of a pile of CVs, along with thousands of others with the same mark.

A partner at a firm of solicitors, who wished to remain anonymous, had this to say: “I was lucky to have a university education at a time when so few had the chance, back in 1976/79. I was a grammar school boy with a student grant, fees paid by the taxpayer and no real debt.

“As a law graduate, finding articles (as a solicitor’s training contract was then called) was quite a straightforward affair. I applied to four firms, was offered interviews by all of them, but attended just two. The whole process was completed in less than six weeks.

“Today, supply far exceeds demand. There is little hope for any but the brightest (or best-connected) students; having a degree is simply not enough to secure a job. Good work experience helps.”

Reportedly, many employers are considering raising their minimum qualifications to a 2:1 – and who can blame them? 73 applicants for every graduate job now fill the inboxes of leading companies – up from 30 before the economic downturn. Disregarding an entire bracket of applicants on the class of their degree seems time and cost effective. But, with so little separating  scores of 55.59 and 60.1, many are being shut out of opportunities they may be perfect for. Not a qualification to set you apart from the crowd anymore, a 2:1 is needed just to put you on an even playing field with everyone else.

The statistics, published in May, commissioned by the Associated of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), revealed that 76 per cent of employers wouldn’t consider a candidate with lower than a 2:1, up from 52 per cent in 2004. According to the survey, 2.5 per cent of recruiters even request a first – not quite the future that so many graduates were promised.

The mind-set that squeezes students in to a three year window to complete their A-levels, decide on a career path and hit the UCAS website is to blame. I don’t need to tell you who Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Bill Gates are. I do need to remind you, though, that they didn’t go to university, made themselves a name and are sitting a lot more comfortably than graduates not seeing the benefits from their years of study and piles of debt.

Although most colleges and schools have careers officers, emphasis is undeniably widely placed on UCAS and university and the pressure is visible in students.

Emily Chambers, a psychology graduate from the University of Lincoln has struggled. "I didn’t consider other routes; it was always university. Sixth form put on days teaching us about UCAS and writing personal statements and we were told that a degree would set us apart from other applicants.

Although I had an amazing time, I’ve graduated with a high 2:1 and I’m still looking for work almost a year later – personally, it seems like having a degree has made no difference."

Regrets? There are plenty. It’s not uncommon for your barista to be qualified in micro engineering, or your waitress to have a law degree under her belt – taking jobs they are seriously under-qualified for seems to be an obligatory step post-graduation.

‘I work as a sales assistant – not what I wanted at all. It’s okay, but I would have loved a job that got me straight on my career ladder. At the minute it’s just not viable’, says John Tomey, a University of East Anglia graduate.

Recent statistics in the Graduates in the Labour Market 2012 report published by the Office for National Statistics shows that almost 36 per cent of graduates are employed in a lower-skilled job, compared with 26.7 per cent in 2001. The report also revealed that the unemployment rate for new graduates has risen: in late 2011, it stood at 18.9 per cent, meaning one in every five new graduates was unemployed.

Instead of churning more cogs through the machine, devaluing degrees and creating more unemployed, isn’t it time to widen our view? Whether through apprenticeships, placements or even just taking some time for travel or industry experience before university, having something to add to a degree could be a dealmaker.

According to the Universities of Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS), hefty tuition fees have deterred some from going to university, with UK-born student applicants falling by 15 per cent. It appears we need alternatives not only to stop more disappointed graduates, but for those who are opting out of further study.

“In my opinion, university has come to be seen somewhat as a ‘rite of passage’ when this shouldn’t necessarily be the case,” says Ann-Marie Stacey, director of Smaart Publishing.

Young people’s choices need to be informed and realistic. They have to know and fully understand the debts they are taking on by going to university and be realistic about the outcome.

“Not everyone needs to go to university to enjoy a rewarding career, and many will be better off looking at options such as apprenticeships and entry level jobs, which can prove to be just as valuable.”             

Independent life experience, growing up and having fun are considered equally important to studying, something that can’t be dismissed. Regardless, the floods of graduates promised a bright future are getting a bum deal.

Jenny Thornton, director of a media firm in London, questions the importance of a degree for employers: “If I was given the choice between a university graduate with a 2:1 and someone who had worked their way through the career ladder and started off small, I would most likely go for the latter.

“Sometimes, especially in a busy firm, what you need is experience and someone who has proved they have the determination to work their way up and who already knows their stuff.

Of course, a degree in itself shows a lot of important attributes to a candidate. It would ultimately probably come down to the individual applicants in the specific scenario. It’s a very difficult situation, one that I don’t think anyone has a remedy to.”

So, that’s helpful.