Graduates are key to a global knowledge economy

The CIPD report published this week, Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market, is extremely shortsighted and dangerous in its assumptions.

If the UK is to build a strong economic future around a knowledge based high tech economy it will require an increasing number of highly skilled graduates and technicians. The CBI in their report Better off Britain forecasted that by 2022 half of all jobs will require workers to have completed some form of higher education at Level 4 or above.

We see regular warnings of skills shortages across the different sectors of our economy. For example, the Perkins Review, in reference to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s report on “Jobs and Growth”, forecasted that between 2012 and 2020, the UK economy will require over 100,000 new professional scientists, engineers and technologists each year. A large number of these will need to be graduates from higher education, yet as a sector we produce nowhere near this figure.

The CIPD survey itself is based on old data – the European Social Survey of 2010. But UK higher education has changed significantly since then – both in terms of the programmes on offer and the opportunities available to students. In my view, it is critical that we base such important claims, as made in the CIPD report, on much more relevant data and that we understand the limitations of the sources we use. The Higher Education Statistics Agency for example, with their 443,110 graduate sample and use of Office of National Statistics classification of professional jobs, provides a much more reliable basis for assessing graduate performance.  But even then we have to recognise this is limited to measuring the jobs of graduates just 6 months out of university.

Clearly universities need to support students to match their career aspirations to both current and future jobs opportunities. Many universities are working very closely with employers to ensure this is achieved and that we are preparing students for a successful future – whether through programmes co-designed with employers, project and placement work, internships, guest lectures from industry professionals or the use of virtual learning environments.

Many of our graduates are going on to fulfil the professional roles that shape our lives and those of our families, such as teachers, healthcare practitioners, nurses, social workers, lawyers, engineers, architects, planners, accountants and business professionals, computer analysts and creative industry professionals. Others become the entrepreneurs and innovators that our economy badly needs.

During an economic downturn I do recognise that graduates may well be in jobs that are classified as ‘non-graduate’. But it is still graduates who are being employed in preference to non-graduates. This is because employers recognise that graduates offer more potential.

Surely we want our young people to be the best they can? Let’s not put them off by headlines based old data and by focusing on narrow definitions of graduate employment. We have to look to their medium and long-term futures and their ability to adapt and thrive in a fast changing global knowledge based economy. Whilst the value of a degree is a hugely important topic to be discussed and debated (see blog post November 2013), the misleading focus on immediate outcomes is far too simplistic and does not lead to the policy options we need to increase our competitiveness as a country.

I’m afraid the idea of limiting the number of graduates when the rest of the developing world is expanding is a completely ridiculous argument. How far behind do we want the UK to fall in the global knowledge economy?

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