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  • Writer's pictureThe Gaudie

The University Bubble

Are too many people going to University?

Image courtesy of Kit, Flickr

by Derek Gardiner

From the early 1990s to late 2000s, the Conservative government of John Major and later the New Labour government embarked on a project of mass university expansion. On coming to power, the Blair government set a target of getting 50% of school leavers into university. They argued that it would increase standards and improve the career opportunities for graduates.

However, it seems to have done quite the opposite. The value of having a degree has been substantially diluted as so many others also have this level of qualification. Now, employers merely set the bar higher, rather than employing more graduates into graduate jobs. Perhaps most importantly at the end of it all graduates are not coming out with an advantage that will get them into a well-established profession. Many now end up working in jobs that have little or nothing to do with their degree programmes.  

Until 1964, there were only four Universities in Scotland; St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. All were well established historical institutions and only around 1 in 6 school leavers were admitted to University. In 1963, the Robbins Report was published which recommended granting University status to polytechnic colleges to create “a skilled and educated workforce” as well as “providing a common culture and standards of citizenship”. In Scotland this led to Strathclyde, Dundee and Heriot-Watt being given University status in the first wave of expansion. In the second wave of expansion several technical colleges were given University status such as the Robert Gordon Institute of Technology, Dundee technical college and Glasgow Polytechnic.

Rubber stamping University status onto a technical college does not give degrees from them any more value.

Employers still tend to prefer graduates from traditional universities that rank highly in the league tables.

The expansion of graduates has not in turn led to an expansion in graduate jobs. Many employers now require a 2.1 degree before they will even consider employing a graduate and most masters and other postgraduate programmes also require a 2.1 for entry. This means that a 2.1 is, for all intents and purposes, the pass grade for a degree. Anything below that will put you at a severe disadvantage compared to other graduates. wever, later estimations have shown that the only graduates likely to see a graduate premium of over £400,000 are male medical graduates. While other degree such as law, engineering and mathematics yield a graduate premium of between £100,000 and £250,000. Some degrees that perhaps less highly regarded including creative arts degrees can in fact be a hindrance. For example, a male creative arts graduate is likely to make a loss of £15,302 over the course of their working lives compared to if they had not gone to university at all. The result is that many students will graduate with debt that is totally unnecessary.

This is especially true in England where graduate debt is much higher than in Scotland due to the stupid decision to raise tuition fees to £9,250. This will mean around £100 Billion of student debt will have to be written off over the next few years. 

The solution to this mess is to reverse the expansions of the 1990s and restore many Universities to their status as polytechnics. Instead, students could be provided with a range of real viable options upon leaving school through apprenticeships and other on the job training schemes.

The problem lies with the disparity in the number of training contracts in the professions and the number of graduates in the field. In forensic science there were 8,500 graduates and less than 2,000 jobs available in the field. Some jobs receiving up to a staggering 1,000 applications.

The idea behind University expansion was in part that it would create a “graduate premium” meaning the graduates would be better off financially by going to university than if they had not in the long term. This graduate premium was originally estimated to be around £400,000 over the course of a graduate’s working life. It was later revised down to just £108,000.

Not going to university is not the end of the world. With the number of University places on a particular course roughly in line with jobs in the field, graduates may actually feel the benefit of going to university. This would at last provide students with a range of options upon leaving school.


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