Some of Britain's biggest graduate recruiters reckon our higher education system needs a complete overhaul - because the degree qualification has become unfit for purpose. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which speaks on behalf of 750 large graduate employers, reckons the Government's bid to get 50% of school leavers into university has just 'driven down standards and devalued the currency of a degree'. The solution, it says, is to scrap the target - and remove the cap on top-up fees - to make degrees more exclusive again. Nobody would argue that we need to raise standards - but should that mean fewer graduates?
The AGR's members hire about 30,000 grads a year between them, so they ought to have a better idea than most of what today’s university leavers have to offer. And judging by their latest manifesto, they’re not particularly impressed. As well as making degrees more exclusive, they also want a greater focus on employability. In practice, this means more high-quality work experience for students; more support for careers services, and the introduction of a Higher Education Achievement Report alongside the degree classification – the idea being to highlight students’ non-academic progress during their time at university. The AGR also wants universities to be more transparent about their graduates’ employment outcomes, so the value of their degrees will be clearer.
Much of this will strike a chord with employers. If the UK wants to compete in the knowledge economy, we need more highly-skilled workers – but we suspect very few people would argue that sending more people to university (in pursuit of this 50% target) has resulted in more employable graduates. In practice, it has just meant more people who shouldn’t be really going to university dossing around for three years before coming out with a 2:1 in Katie Price Studies. And the AGR’s suggestion that degrees have been devalued echoes the conclusion of the recent Burgess Review.
But there are a few problems here. The main argument against abolishing the cap on top-up fees is that it will make it harder for poorer students to go to university, thus hammering social mobility still further (the AGR says encouraging a national savings scheme would offset that, but we’re not convinced). The University and College Union also pointed out to the Guardian that at present, employers are benefiting from higher education without having to foot the bill (this is rather simplistic given taxes, endowments and so on, but still) – so if they want more, they should contribute more.
In addition, the UCU’s Sally Hunt added: ‘The future for the UK is at the forefront of a high-skilled knowledge economy – and we won't get there with less graduates.’ And this is arguably the key point (and not just because graduates are more likely to know the difference between 'less' and ‘fewer’). If we need more highly-skilled workers, surely we should be trying to send more people to university? Perhaps the focus should be on getting rid of dodgy degree courses, rather than scrapping that 50% target.
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Degrees have been devalued, say graduate employers
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