Despite soaring tuition fees, Britain has more graduates than ever before. Yet research is showing that thousands of graduates are struggling to find employment that matches their skills, with more than a third ending up in low-skilled jobs.
According to official 2016 figures, one in five graduates work in non-professional roles that do not require a degree. Our young people are paying more in time and money for a degree than previous generations, and with shrinking graduate earnings, the value of a degree is clearly falling.
No longer a golden ticket to a dream graduate role, degrees alone are failing to equip students with the skills needed for the job market.
Graduates are not closing the skills gap
It's a well-known fact that the UK economy is facing a skills gap, and the statistics suggest that the skills owned by today’s graduates are not meeting this demand. It is important that Britain has a balance of properly equipped graduates and non-graduates to bring the right variation of skills and experience that the economy needs to flourish.
A recent report by Alexander Mann Solutions states that 28 percent of businesses have found it more difficult to fill graduate roles this season, and have struggled to source and secure relevant skills. It has been said numerous times that higher and degree-level apprenticeships could be one solution to this skills shortage, and the report also suggests that 37 percent of businesses view apprentices as the top source of emerging talent.
Furthermore, according to a study by Aviva, over a third of graduates regret going to university, and 50 percent believe they could have landed the same job without their degree. This calls for better careers advice to be given from early-stage education professionals, to ensure students are making the right decisions about their future.
Universities are too busy focusing on their reputation rather than their academic standards and quality of teaching.
Right from the get-go, it’s important for students to be aware of the practicalities involved in pursuing certain career paths and the expectations of today’s employers.
Poor career advice
I was shocked by findings from a one of our own careers advice reports that Debut published a few months ago, revealing that 67 percent of people aged 16-25 in the UK think they have been failed by the government’s careers advice framework; 46 percent of all respondents claimed to have not received any advice before making important educational choices relating to A-levels and degrees, and almost a quarter (22%) claim their careers advice resulted in them making the wrong career decisions.
Again, this emphasises the need for better, or maybe just different, careers advice. It’s encouraging to see the government release its comprehensive careers strategy, however with the recent cabinet reshuffle, there is still a lot of uncertainty, so we will have to wait and see how quickly this will come into effect.
Graduate skills and labour market are ‘mismatched’
Political debates surrounding higher education are so focused on tuition fees, little attention is paid to exactly what value universities are giving to students, and the country as a whole. There is an urgent need for a critical review of the quality of higher education, particularly looking at the level of support and facilities available when it comes to careers advice and employment opportunities.
Yes, universities are academic institutions, but they should be preparing students for employment by supplying them with key skills and a real, practical insight into the world of work.
UCAS should play a role too, perhaps through coaching students to select the right courses based on their career destinations, rather than asking them to tick a box and make a university choice.
Britain boasts some of the world’s best universities, yet the focus on fundamental skills required in the real working world have been neglected. UK graduates are finding it harder than ever to seamlessly transition from university to work. There is a clear mismatch between the skills students are graduating with and the reality of the graduate labour market, which is bad for all parties - the students, the employers and if we look at the bigger picture, the UK labour market.
The more equipped young people are for their career choices, the stronger their performance and the stronger UK productivity and growth will become.
Many employers would rather hire candidates with practical experience behind them and a proven skill set, over those with just a degree, so clearly the answer lies in ensuring higher education also equips students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
Why are we lowering the value of degrees?
The high pass rates of graduates at British universities is also arguably reducing the value of a degree. Data released under freedom of information laws shows that dozens of institutions, including Durham, Liverpool and Oxford, have admitted they did not fail a single student in their final exams last year.
In the early 1990s, the proportion of students graduating with a first was around 8 percent, but now a quarter of students at UK universities are leaving with first-class degrees.
With so many more graduates now achieving these top grades, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to differentiate between candidates and identify the best talent. In some ways, this can be seen in a positive light, as it forces employers to use modern, innovative recruitment and selection techniques rather than traditional hiring processes.
There is a flaw in the British education system, which is leaving graduates in long-term debt without the skills they need to secure future employment.
Employers are turning to other non-traditional factors during the candidate selection process and using alternative recruitment processes, such as psychometric assessments, to identify best fit candidates. Such processes review cognitive abilities, strengths, skills and personality traits in addition to qualifications.
Some companies have even gone as far as to completely remove degree classification for their targeting criteria and focus solely on strengths and behaviours instead.
Although it’s highly unlikely students will complain about the fact it’s nearly impossible to fail their degree, around 34 percent think university is poor value for money, and the proportion of students who share this opinion has almost doubled in the last five years, according to the annual Student Academic Experience Survey.
Universities are too busy focusing on their reputation rather than their academic standards and quality of teaching. Subsequently, many young people are choosing their university based on how well-marketed it is, rather than the quality of the degree on offer.
Sadly, I do think that higher education institutes are failing to deliver value for money and are losing sight of what’s important to students and employers – the quality of higher education, with a focus on more than just academia, but also actionable, practical skills.
A novel idea...
Clearly there is a flaw in the British education system, which is leaving graduates in long-term debt without the skills they need to secure future employment.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Department for Work and Pensions worked with UCAS, the UK’s universities and a cross section of employers representing society to address the skills gap, and direct young people into areas that would benefit from the skills and interests they have, rather than assuming that university is the route for everyone.
Rather than focusing on marketing gimmicks and league tables, let’s pay some attention to young people seeking a successful career – after all, they are paying £50,000 for it.
About Charlie Taylor
Charlie Taylor is a Forbes (30 under 30) award-winning technology entrepreneur and Founder of the Google award-winning student careers app, Debut.
Charlie grew up in North Wales and studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of York. Whilst studying there he trained with the police, worked at the House of Commons and later went on to win an award for flying solo with the Royal Navy.
Charlie built Debut out of his frustrations with the outdated, time-consuming recruitment process that he was forced to endure when he graduated four years ago. During his time at university, Charlie often questioned why all other brands and services targeting students were embracing mobile, but no recruitment brands had tried to.
Since its launch just over two years ago, Debut has fast become the recruitment method used by over 50 of the UK’s leading graduate employers, including EY, Microsoft, Barclays, Capgemini, Rolls-Royce, L'Oréal, and General Electric.
So far, the Debut app has been downloaded more than 110,000 times, and 70 percent of users are actively engaging with employers on a regular basis.