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Monday, May 30, 2005

The myth of the graduate premium

The Times reports on a study that finds that as many as one in four teenagers from single-parent families are deterred from thoughts of university by the prospect of getting into debt. White working-class boys are worst affected.

The study is based on interviews with 2,700 schoolchildren aged 11 to 16 from London to Wales and the West Midlands. It illustrates the challenge the Government faces in widening access and how their own policies are actively working against the most disadvantaged members of our society and reinforcing higher education as a middle class reserve.

The overall proportion of young people who said that they were unlikely to go into higher education because they were worried about getting into debt remained relatively low at 17 per cent. That figure dropped to 15 per cent in a two-parent household but rose to 25 per cent for those in a single-parent household. At the same time, while 48 per cent of young people declared that they wanted to “start earning money as soon as possible”, that figure climbed to 59 per cent among children from one-parent families.

These figures have been backed up by the Higher Education Council for England. In January they disclosed that despite a rapid expansion of university places the class divide remained “deep and persistent”. Youngsters from the wealthiest 20 per cent of homes were six times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest 20 per cent.

Another interesting and useful article by Tom Halpin on The Times website underlines the impact of Labour's top-up fees agenda on the education system and in particular the fact that the so-called graduate premium, by which the party justifies its deferred fee regime, is rapidly disappearing without trace.

Liberal Democrats have long argued that one of the consequences of fees is to create a market economy in education. We have already seen the impact of that with the decline and subsequent closure of traditional science courses such as chemistry and physics. Tom Halpin, however, has other examples:

Courses aimed at specific professions, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, naturally have the highest proportions in work.

Elsewhere there can be large variations. Despite its popularity among students, communication and media studies proves to have one of the poorest employment records. More than half of graduates are in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after leaving university, demonstrating that the message about this medium is still not getting through. Just a third of graduates go straight into graduate careers.

Similarly, half of graduates in hospitality, leisure and tourism are either working in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after completing their courses. Psychology, another boom subject, also fares poorly: just 27 per cent of graduates are entering graduate employment from university. Applications for building rose by 30 per cent this year and the employment figures help to explain why. Nearly three quarters enter graduate jobs. Food science also has a good record.

Schools and universities have long expressed concern about declining levels of interest in sciences and modern languages. But Hesa’s employment figures bear out the pragmatic attitude of students, worried about the cost of their degrees. A third of physics and astronomy graduates were in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 37 per cent of those in biological sciences and a quarter of those with chemistry degrees.

Linguists struggle similarly. A third of graduates in Russian, German and French were either in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 43 per cent of those with degrees in Italian or Iberian languages.

Universities generally struggle to recruit enough students for engineering courses. Electrical engineering has the highest unemployment rate at 14 per cent, marginally more than art and design and computer science.

Mr. Halpin concludes that Graduate unemployment remains low overall and virtually non-existent if you have a good class of degree. Many take low-level positions initially as a means of getting a foot in the door of their chosen careers, and move quickly over time into posts more suited to their qualifications. However, he casts a long shadow of the Labour Government's policy by questioning whether this will continue and if so, how graduates are to pay back the huge mountain of debt that they will emerge into the 'real' world with:

Controversy still rages in academia about the long-term value of a degree in an era when half of all young people are expected to have one. The Government justified its decision to raise tuition fees by pointing to the salary premium enjoyed by graduates. It argued that the huge expansion of higher education over the past 15 years had produced no evidence of an erosion in the value of graduates to employers, and that more jobs in the future would require a degree. But some recent studies claim to have detected the first signs of a “graduate glut”, leading to concern that a degree may be about to decline in value just as it becomes more expensive to acquire one.


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