A generation ago, school leavers chose to go to university giving considerable thought to what they would enjoy studying for three years and perhaps less thought to where it might lead them in terms of a career. In the majority of cases, it was a given that, with a university degree, there would be little difficulty in finding a job after graduating. Today, however, graduates cannot make this same assumption; moreover, the majority may consider whether university is really the best option for entering today’s job market.
Successive governments have encouraged increasing numbers of school leavers to go into higher education, on the premise that, on graduating, their earning potential is raised considerably. Thousands of young people choose university over entering the jobs market straight from school in the hope of improving their job prospects and increasing their economic and social opportunities.
Yet, with the double-dip recession taking its toll, this promise seems increasingly unachievable for a whole generation of young people. Despite George Osborne’s attempts to paint a positive picture of the jobs market in yesterday’s budget, youth unemployment has risen by 48,000, bringing the total to 993,000. This figure may in fact be much higher if we account for those young people who, for one reason or another, choose not to sign on. Not only are many graduates inactive, but many more are working in roles for which they are over qualified or for fewer hours than they want. According to figures published by the Office of National Statistics at the end of last year, nearly 36 per cent of graduates were employed in lower-skilled jobs.
There is rightly much focus on youth unemployment schemes for those leaving school at 16 or 18 and indeed, we should be encouraging this to develop further so as to ensure we can provide the best quality apprenticeships and other vocational training. However, there is much less of a debate surrounding the employment situation for graduates. Policies to widen participation in higher education have been implemented successively, yet seemingly, little provision has been made for young people’s prospects upon graduating.
Perhaps there is a certain taboo in this area of debate. One could argue that graduates have already been given an excellent opportunity in the first place, being lucky enough to go to university, improve their job prospects and benefit from a certain life experience that other young people may miss out on. It therefore seems wrong to ‘moan’ about the job situation for graduates when there are vast numbers of other unemployed young people who haven’t had such an opportunity and, consequently, don’t have the qualifications or training to help them progress in the careers to which they aspire.
However, in the debate surrounding both further and higher education, it would seem that more thought needs to be given to provision for young people’s prospects after they finish their studies, in order to avoid negative consequences for both the labour market and for the individual young people themselves.