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The Mindless Dash For Degrees Has Been A Disaster!

Charlie MullinsWednesday 26th November 2014
Charlie Mullins

I have just shamelessly stripped The Thunderer editorial complete with headline from The Times. Reason being, that apart from the first bit about a lost degree certificate, this could have been written by me . . . in fact versions of it have been. Like so many things we are grappling with today - Blair got us into this mess, and the answer is Apprenticeships.

I vaguely remember stashing my degree certificate in a special place when I moved house 15 years ago: so special that I cannot now find it. Not that I am fretting. Not once in the past quarter of a century has anyone asked me to produce it.

I don’t think I wasted my time at university but I might feel differently if I was 25, had debts of £30,000 and, like an increasing number of recent graduates, was unemployed. The Institute for Public Policy Research revealed yesterday that 15 per cent of graduates are jobless a year after graduation. This is better than for people who leave school after GCSEs, 28 per cent of whom are jobless a year on. Yet among those finishing trade apprenticeships the figure is only 5 per cent.

Tony Blair set his target of getting 50 per cent of the population through university on the premise that graduates had a statistically better chance of employment than non-graduates. Universities were encouraged to expand with little effort made to match courses to the skills sought by employers — as long as it was called a degree, that was what mattered.

Fashionable subjects such as forensic science proliferated because students, brought up on TV detective shows, thought they sounded exciting. Only too late did they find out that forensics laboratories are few, and those that do exist prefer to employ chemistry graduates.

It may have been true that graduates did better in the jobs market when there were relatively few graduates but the more the university sector expanded, the less true it became. The error was in assuming that possession of a degree was a cause of greater employability. It could simply have been that universities, like employers, used to cherry-pick the brightest, most able people. These people went on to have the best careers, but would perhaps have done so even if they hadn’t gone to university.

Of course a lot of jobs require the attainment of specialised knowledge but it doesn’t follow that a full-time university course is the best place to acquire it. If leisure and tourism students were learning at the sharp end in a Travelodge, and media studies students acquired their skills in the PR offices where most will work, we would have just as skilled a workforce as now and we would have a better match between the skills possessed by young people and the skills required in the workplace. And fewer students would have learnt what it is like to be in debt.