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Why there aren’t 'too many graduates in the jobs market'

Kathleen Henehan

Kathleen Henehan

Former ​Policy Analyst
Universities UK

Yesterday, a report published by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) made headlines for suggesting that too many graduates are taking jobs that don't require 'graduate-level skills'. Their conclusion: there are now too many graduates in the jobs market. 

The report looked at 29 occupational categories that have seen growth in graduates over recent decades – including financial managers and directors, programmers and software developers, nurses and police officers – and concluded that most of those occupations have not become demanding enough to warrant the rise in the numbers of graduates working in them. 

They determined this by looking at employment surveys and comparing the reported use of 'influence' at work. For a number of the 29 occupations, between 2004 and 2011, the amount of influence that graduates reported using, relative to non-graduates in the same job, either declined or reversed.

According to the report, the real issue isn't whether graduates fare better in the labour market than non-graduates – the evidence clearly shows they do – but rather, whether the occupations that graduates enter into actually require the skills that a student would pick up through a degree course. 

This is a fair – and challenging – question that UUK is currently seeking to answer through its Review of Skills. To do this we need to ask two (rather complicated) questions:

  1. What are the skills, attitudes and experience that we can reasonably expect a graduate to have developed through the course of their degree?

  2. What are the skills, attitudes and experience that a particular role requires? 

How do we define and measure a 'graduate-level' role?

There's no agreed method, as UUK has previously highlighted. In the case of the CIPD report, the authors define an occupation as being 'graduate' or 'non-graduate' according to the amount of discretion and influence that someone uses in their job. But different definitions produce different results.  

Contrary to the headlines we saw yesterday, research by UCL Institute of Education looked at nearly 200 different occupational categories and found that a considerable proportion of jobs have in fact become more challenging in recent decades. Between 1997–2001 and 2006–2012, 40% of all additional graduate employment occurred in occupations that were not previously classified as 'graduate-level' but which have become more demanding over time and now are. 

If the content and challenges of particular occupations are likely to change over time, shifts in the UK's labour market are a near certainty – with jobs that, according to most experts, require higher and graduate-level skills increasing the most. Data from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows that by 2024 high-skilled occupations will comprise more than half (7.6 million) of a projected 14 million additional job openings since 2014, and account for over 70% of all newly created occupations in the UK economy.  

But even if we had an agreed, robust definition for the term 'graduate job', we would still need a better understanding of what 'graduate skills' are and indeed what separates graduates from other types of education leavers. This seems an impossible task given the diversity of UK higher education courses, subjects, providers and students.  

Employers say they are satisfied with their graduates

The 2016 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that most employers report being satisfied or very satisfied with their graduates' attitudes, relevant work experience and skills: satisfaction with graduates' numeracy was 91%, technical skills 88% and literacy 86%. Employer satisfaction with college leavers in these same skill areas was 71%, 75% and 68%, respectively.   


Of course, that isn't the end of the story. We know that graduates' ability to fulfil skills shortages and translate their degree into a rewarding career hinges on a number of critical elements, including coordination between employers and universities on course design and delivery, opportunities to boost students' job-related skills through work experience, and to provide students with the ability to identify and describe the skills that they picked up on their course and their wider university experience. Higher education providers are addressing a number of these issues through employability strategies, links with business and, increasingly, degree apprenticeships. In fact, UUK has recently put these issues under the microscope and is currently seeking feedback from higher education providers, graduates, students and any other stakeholder with an interest in graduate skills and employability. 

These are important issues to consider, particularly in the context of the government's forthcoming industrial strategy. As UUK has recently stated, through investment in programmes such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund in England, universities can continue to act as a key coordinating mechanism, locally and nationally, to ensure that employers have access to the skills they need.

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