Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is also a Didcot Town Councillor.
Each July as I sit on the stage, decked out in sub-fusc and scarlet festal robes, politely applauding as the Vice-Chancellor turns former students into newly minted graduates, I reflect on two things. Firstly, that we’re casting these people off into the world in the hope and expectation that they will become productive, and useful members of society; I survey their families in the audience knowing that this is what they’re hoping for too. Secondly, I know that, come September, there will be brand new cadre of new undergraduates and we’ll start all over again. The names and faces change, but the hopes and expectations, principally that University will be the key to a well-paid career, remain the same.
Today is A Level results day and for some, their dreams will take another step towards being realised. Others are going to be less fortunate, but nowadays they’re unlikely to miss out on the University experience if they want it; the cap limiting the number of places at each institution has been removed (and before anyone starts getting exercised about students from outside the EU poaching places, they don’t and never did). The objective of this was to allow popular courses and institutions to expand. As Conservatives, we’re usually instinctively in favour of this sort of thing, but there are consequences that are not widely understood.
Nowadays, many universities, even those near the top of the league tables, are now so desperate to secure the best undergraduates, that anyone with a stack of good GCSEs and a prediction of AAA at A Level, is likely to secure an unconditional offer from a good institution; if they get one of these, they don’t even need to bother turning up to their exams, they’ll still get in. Alas, this should be seen against a backdrop of fewer students getting their predicted grades at A Level and it’s easy to envisage it as the stimulus for a new wave of grade inflation.
Across the board expansion of places in higher education has been continued in order to supply the economy with the graduates that it needs. But has there? Well, not necessarily. This laissez-faire approach does absolutely nothing to address the relative demand for graduates in certain disciplines.
Law is a perennially popular degree course, widely seen as a key to a bumper salary and perpetual employment; but this has led to a huge oversupply of graduates. A friend of mine who’s a Legal Director at a prestigious law firm, and involved in its graduate recruitment, told me that aspiring solicitors ‘need connections, good grades at A Level, an upper second or first class degree and luck to succeed. Even then, there are loads of people struggling in low-paid or unpaid jobs, hunting for a training contract’.
Sadly, I think this is a lost cause. While universities are willing to educate countless wannabe lawyers, teenage hubris will ensure that even those entering institutions towards the bottom of the league tables do so expecting high-rolling careers. Many, it would seem, are destined to be disappointed. Students now borrow the money to pay their way, so you might think it’s their choice and their lookout. I’d agree – just so long as they earn enough money to pay back those loans and don’t dump the liability onto the taxpayer after 30 years, as many are currently forecast to do.
The flip side of this coin is that there are economically important industries that do not have graduates clamoring to work in them. A recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health highlighted the opportunities for the UK in healthcare, which many people expect to be the boom industry of the 21st century. Sure, there’s no shortage of people wanting to become doctors; it’s a well-paid job. But this sector is set for revolutionary advances in biotechnology, materials science, robotics and digital technologies. The UK is in an excellent position to capitalise in all of these areas, but it needs properly trained people who, crucially, want to work in the sector. If it wasn’t for overseas recruitment, principally from Europe and Asia, places where science and engineering careers are held in greater esteem, many of our companies engaged in high-level research and development would not survive.
So, all we need to do is to take back control the number of places available on certain courses? Well, no. It would be quite wrong of me to give the impression that it’s just students who can be unrealistic. I’m frequently surprised by some of the expectations that hold sway in the graduate employment market. Many employers seem to want the sun, moon and stars when it comes to recruitment; it’s a pity then that some of them won’t pay for it. If an employer can afford to be choosy, well, good for them. The reason they can be so, is usually because they’re recognised as paying well and offering a career progression.
Many companies complain that they can’t get the graduates they need. But I also hear a lot about employers demanding unrealistic skills levels from graduates. This unrequited pining of employers for the best people is usually the result of them being unprepared to pay a premium to secure the strongest and an unwillingness or inability to provide decent career development opportunities. It’s the same phenomenon that meant the recent Budget contained measures to encourage businesses to invest more in training their workforce; a measure one un-named cabinet minister famously said was ‘to kick British businesses up their lazy arses’. Nowadays, few people are prepared to tread water in a job when they’ve forked out tens of thousands of pounds in University tuition fees and other, more rewarding options exist. Expectations cut both ways.
If employers want more and better graduates to choose to earn a living in their field, whatever that might be, it’s incumbent upon them to ensure that the careers on offer are fulfilling in terms of both salary and progression and importantly, are seen by upcoming A Level students, to be so. Some organisations do this, but too many do not.