Who would want to be a graduate?

If you were coming up to eighteen and deciding what to do next why would you choose to go the university route and get a degree?

We are regularly told that graduate unemployment continues to break new records, that work (if you can get it) is often menial, underpaid and temporary and that the burden of debt you need to pay off could still be with you well into middle age. On the other hand, employers are saying ‘we need graduates’ for any and all jobs and will only consider employing people if they have a minimum of a media studies degree from the university of the middle of somewhere.

What’s going on; how have we allowed a perfectly acceptable aspiration, that of acquiring knowledge and getting a degree, to become a trap from which no-one now seems able to plot an escape? 

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he declared that his three main objectives were “education, education, education” and he set an ambitious target for the number of graduates he wanted to see in 10-15 years’ time.  He wanted at least half of the UK’s young people to participate in higher education and in 2012 that target has almost been reached as the participation rate rose to 49.3%, equating to around 2.5 million students.  This is universally regarded as ‘a good thing’ and getting a degree is the now seen as the ‘best’ option for life and a successful career irrespective of an individual’s circumstances.

There was a time, however, when it was possible to leave school at eighteen with a couple of ‘A’ levels and find work that would be fulfilling, interesting and provide a challenging and rewarding career.  Those jobs (if they still exist) are now reserved for graduates who bring a higher skill set (in theory) even if the job doesn’t really require it. More jobs in the UK now require a degree than do not and we now have countless thousands of young graduates spending three years effectively marking time until they can hope to join the job market. 

Many, of course, will enjoy the student experience, some may even learn something useful, and some will broaden their horizons and ‘take flight’, but just as many will be intensely frustrated by the delay in getting to the job market.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle and every person who wishes to go to university should, of course, have that opportunity, but it should never become the only route for young people to take. A former headmaster of Harrow School said in a recent debate at the Oxford Union that university isn’t right for everyone and that the government and employers should make more effort to create opportunities for apprentices and 18 year old school leavers.

It’s easy for everyone to say that ‘something must be done’ and that it is the responsibility of governments to act.  I don’t agree, I think the responsibility lies with employers fair and square.  No-one is holding a gun to any employer’s head saying take these graduates; if they want school leavers then they can hire school leavers and every employer in the country can do this, today.

Imagine if all those jobs currently demanding graduate level skills and knowledge were suddenly opened up to 18 year old with ‘A’ levels. We might see a drop in student numbers but we might also see a generation of young people given the chance to learn on the job, acquire vital life skills instead of a huge debt, and start living their lives.

And those still set on a university career?  Go to university by all means but do it because it’s what you want to do not what you feel obliged to do.