Busting graduate labour myths

A new Universities UK report aims to highlight the strong and continued demand for graduates. Charlie Ball separates facts from fiction

Charlie Ball is Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc.

Misconceptions about education and about graduates have existed as long as there has been a higher education system in the UK.

Often, these myths have been fed by an apparent remoteness between universities and their student bodies and academic staff, and the rest of the population. In the modern era, as higher education has become more common and has a higher social, economic and political profile, many aspects of higher education and its place in society are frequently up for debate.

Basic questions

The labour market, and skills supply and demand are complex, not always easy to examine and constantly changing. We do not have particularly good demand-side data, for example (the UK is far from alone in this), and much of what we do have has caveats and nuances that can be hard to easily understand.

There are a set of basic questions to answer in order to pursue this necessary discussion in the most informed way. What is the actual state of the graduate labour market? How many graduates actually are there? How do we define a “graduate job”? How many people are there in them? What do the studies that are usually quoted in these debates actually say?

If we do not address these questions directly, then misconceptions arise and that leads to mistaken action, and it means problems arise where there were none and those problems that do exist are not properly addressed. Above all it means that talented young people who have worked hard to acquire useful skills and qualifications are not being helped to put those skills to work for organisations that can benefit from them.

Myth busting

This is how we can be in a situation where one group of stakeholders can hold the view that there are too many people going to university, and others can have spent many years worrying that they cannot find the graduates that they need to thrive. And in today’s report we have set out to examine how and why this can happen.

UUK’s new report, Busting graduate job myths, is our attempt to examine some of the raw data around some of these key questions. It is not the last word, but it is an evidence-based and data-driven discussion of some of the main talking points.

For instance: do 50 per cent of young people go to university? At present, it is not really possible to definitely answer yes. Over 40 per cent certainly do, and over time, as more go to higher education providers of various kinds, as mature students, it looks likely that there has already been a cohort of young people who will, over their lifetimes, see a majority experience higher education or an equivalent of some kind.

However, if the question is “do half of 18 year olds go to university”, the answer is much easier. No, they do not. Indeed, they never have and nor does the data suggest that we are likely, in the near future, to see a situation where half of school leavers move from school or college to university straight away.

Demand for graduates

We also examine the question of graduate supply and demand. Are there, as some say, “too many graduates”?

In actual fact the data makes it very hard to unequivocally state that too many people go to university to meet demand for degrees. Many critiques of current graduate employment hark back to a golden age where graduate jobs were plentiful and nearly every university leaver got a suitable role with relative ease, as opposed to the current situation with a supposed glut of graduates and a competitive market. But data on employment and unemployment suggest that if such a situation ever existed, it was it was either for a short period in the late 60s and early 70s, before 1975 (and anyone graduating before then is very close to, or has reached, retirement age) or the brief period in the late 90s and early 2000s between the previous two UK recessions.

Some parts of the 80s and early 90s were very difficult times to graduate – and not surprisingly as we were experiencing very serious economic downturns at the time. This is not to suggest that there are no underemployed graduates, but rather that graduate underemployment is a real, very long-established and much-debated issue for which no solution has ever really been found – and that the current labour market is not obviously exceptional in terms of the issues faced in this regard.

The number of jobs for which graduates are suitable, and the number of graduates available seem reasonably well matched at present – and there are both appreciable shortages of graduates in some fields, and obvious areas of graduate underemployment in others. The UK is not unusual in any of these respects. The real issue seems less to be too many (or too few) graduates and more that we’re not giving many of the graduates we do have the opportunity to make the best use of the skills and learning they have acquired.

What is underqualification?

A lot has been written about graduates being overqualified for the roles they are in. But the OECD’s Skills for Jobs dataset estimates that whilst 14 per cent of the UK workforce are overqualified for their current role, twice that proportion, 27.7 per cent, are underqualified. This is the second highest level of underqualification in the entire OECD, behind only Ireland, and surely has to be a concern when we consider how we match skills supply and demand.

We spend a lot of energy debating what a “graduate job” is, and a lot of very good work has been done as a consequences, but it’s a constantly-moving target. Is a job for which a degree is appropriate, but for which there are other routes into it, a “graduate” job? Are jobs becoming “graduate” through a kind of grade inflation (yes – but it’s actually not that common), or are their natures and requirements changing over time so that a degree is now needed where once it wasn’t (yes – this is quite common). Perhaps we ought to spend some more of this productive energy looking at issues adult skills and training.

If we can come to a better understanding of how graduate demand genuinely works, we can start to unpick the riddles of mismatch between graduate skills and employer needs. And we could build a more effective employment structure for those who enter higher education.

2 responses to “Busting graduate labour myths

  1. This is an interesting an important corrective. When I was idly browsing the back catalogue of PhD theses in my department recently, I noticed that two of the oldest theses in the digitised record were about the graduate labour market, and what they discuss looks pretty familiar in 2022. One looked at graduates from colleges of HE in 1979 who did not do teaching degrees and found that they “filtered down” in the labour market into secretarial/clerical work; the other was a study, completed in 1997 (25 years ago) of ‘graduate realism’ or lack of it in the labour market.

    See: https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10915/1/349789_vol1.pdf and https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10948/1/387618.pdf respectively

  2. There seems to have been a flurry of activity on the topic in the late 70s as there are some references to the subject in policy speeches of the time. Obviously the debate was almost identical to the modern discourse. A Mrs M Thatcher was quite vocal in the 70s about the need for university autonomy and investment in arts education. I wonder what became of her.

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