The educational divide: In London 60% have been to university, but north-east figure is only 29%

Most comprehensive study ever shows failure of campaigns to encourage young people from disadvantaged homes to apply for higher education

Education Editor

Walk down most streets in inner London and the chances are that the next person you bump into will be a graduate.

In Newcastle, though, it would be a completely different story as the north-east has the lowest participation in higher education.

Figures published today by the Office of National Statistics show a stark divide between north and south with inner London the only area of the country where more than half the population (60 per cent) have been to university. In the north-east, it is only 29 per cent.

They show that millions of pounds spend by successive governments on encouraging young people from disadvantaged homes to apply to university are still failing to make a major impact in vast swathes of the country.

The picture painted by the research is the most comprehensive profile of the UK's graduate community ever compiled.

It shows, for instance, that the percentage of graduates employed in jobs which do not need a degree has soared by more than a quarter since the turn of the century - going up from 37 per cent of all graduates in 2001 to 47 per cent last year.

The majority of those in non-graduate roles were employed as secretaries, sales assistants, factory workers or care home staff.

The rise is most marked since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. "This may reflect lower demand for graduate skills as well as an increased supply of graduates," says the report.

If you are looking for a route into employment through your degree, your best bet is to opt for a medicine or dentistry qualification where 95 per cent of students have a job. They are also the highest paid - earning £46,000 a year.

The much reviled media studies degree is in second place in the employment stakes with 93 per cent in employment.  However, graduates here are the lowest earners with just £21,000 a year on average.

The reports shows there has been a steady increase in graduates over the past decade - although a caveat would be that the first year of those paying fees of up to £9,000 a year have not worked their way through university. At present, the figures show the numbers have gone up from 17 per cent in 1992 to 38 per cent last year.

The graduate "premium" still exists, though, despite the expansion. Only four per cent are unemployed compared to five per cent with just an A-level qualification and eight per cent with five A* to C grades at GCSE (including maths and English)

"Graduates were more likely to be employed, less likely to be searching for work and much less likely to be out of the labour force than people who left education with lower qualifications or no qualifications," it added.

On pay, graduate salaries rose "at a fast pace" before levelling out at the age of 38 at an average of £35,000 a year. Those with top grade GCSE passes hit a ceiling of £19,000 a year at the age of 32 while those with A-levels found their salaries rising until they reached the aged of 34 - when, on average, they earned £22,000 a year.

"The decline in annual gross wages that occurred as people got older happened at a slightly faster pace for graduates than for those with qualifications of a lower standard," said the report.

"This may be because graduates earned more over their working life so they were more likely to take early retirement or work fewer hours as they got older."

Finally, the figures show - as might be expected - that those who went to a Russell Group university (the group represents 24 of the country's more selective research institutions) earned £3.63p an hour more than those from other universities.

The report points out that "they are more likely to have an undergraduate degree in a subject such as medicine/dentistry, engineering and physical/environmental sciences".

"Secondly, the entry requirements for Russell Group universities tend to be higher, therefore the graduates from these universities tend to be more likely to go on to highly skilled roles," it added.

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