The problem facing Britain’s university leavers is simply stated: too many graduates, too few graduate jobs. Many are finding themselves forced into “temporary” occupations in bars, factories and offices that can turn uncomfortably permanent, and it is getting them down. Graduates must ask themselves why they bothered writing dissertations and studying for years, just so they can run up a large “debt” – in reality a liability to higher taxation, but no less onerous for that.
It is hardly their fault. Britain does not generate sufficient hi-tech, high-income jobs. Traditional graduate occupations in the public sector – teaching is the outstanding example – are hardly booming, given the pressure on public spending, relatively low recent birth rates and unattractive salaries. In the private sector, the usual professional routes are often also difficult to crack – closed shops with no wish to dilute earnings by expanding their membership, as with the Bar. From veterinary practice to journalism, the supply of willing graduates often exceeds the ability of the professions to absorb them. Exceptions, such as some fields of engineering or IT, merely prove the point that demand and supply are badly out of equilibrium.
That said, some new-wave jobs, such as the archetypal entrepreneur in a digital start-up, are there for the taking by the motivated graduate. This is not as fanciful as it sounds: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Michael Dell (Dell Computers), Steve Jobs (Apple), Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and Larry Ellison (Oracle) didn’t even finish their degree courses. Few of them must worry about “what might have been” if they’d got that degree. So the fact that graduates are not always going into the sort of jobs their parents went into – often with big corporate “lifetime” employers – may not be quite as distressing as it first appears.
All of which highlights the other half of the equation – the apparently unlimited supply of graduates. We have invented a Britain where a university degree is some sort of minimum educational and social qualification. This tendency was exacerbated by the Blair government when it set an arbitrary target that 50 per cent of young people should attend university – no ifs, no buts. But when half the country has a degree, the chances of most of them earning relatively high incomes is correspondingly diminished. So we are experiencing what may be termed a “revolution of falling expectations” among today’s graduates, in sharp contrast to their predecessors’ rising hopes.
And yet, despite the boom, many gifted children in state schools are still missing out on university, thanks to poor teaching and the poverty of ambition for them at school and at home. For others, the old post-A-level routes, such as taking a job in a bank, as an apprentice or with the police, have been usurped by the ubiquitous graduate entrance scheme.
One of the few good things about university tuition fees is that some market discipline will start to be applied, and for the wider good. Students who probably won’t get that much out of university will be deterred from applying.
The ageless principle, first set out in the Robbins Report of 1963, which launched the vast expansion of new universities in the following decade, is that every young person who can benefit from a degree should be able to get one. To have gone beyond that ideal was, in some ways, admirable; but we have a lot of BAs and BScs with honours working as shelf-stackers this summer; that cannot be right.
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