Nation's prosperity relies on more people of all ages going to university

6 August 2018

​Educating more people at university could bring significant benefits to our economy, according to a new report published by Universities UK.

The onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and digital technology – and challenges of Brexit and an ageing population are creating rising demand for those with qualifications above Level 4 (HNC/Ds, foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees).

The report – Solving future skills challenges – highlights the need for continual skill upgrading, lifelong learning and study of higher education qualifications at all levels.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will increase the complexity of work, and the relentless, rapid pace of change will create even stronger demand for those with transferable skills developed at university across all subjects, in areas such as communication, team-working and problem-solving.

The percentage of young people from England entering higher education has reached 49 percent, although there has been a steady decline in part-time and mature study numbers in recent years. The report calls on policy makers to reverse this drop and incentivise closer links between universities and employers, particularly small and medium sized businesses.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said there is significant evidence of the need to increase student numbers:

"There is rising employer demand for the broad skills developed at university across a wide range of subjects and levels. The UK economy and society needs more graduates. Educating more people of all ages at university would grow our economy faster, by increasing productivity, competitiveness, and innovation.

"The analytical and learning skills developed at university help people adapt in the rapidly changing jobs market. To meet future challenges, the government should develop new policies to make part-time study more appealing, upskilling easier and encourage lifelong learning among our ageing population."

Edwin Morgan, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors, said:

"Not being able to find people with the right skills consistently comes up as a top issue affecting our members, so universities have a crucial role to play in filling this gap. Higher education has been one of the UK's most successful sectors in recent years, accounting for a sizeable chunk of UK exports, and further expansion will be necessary as the demand for highly-skilled labour grows.  

"This report rightly looks at the broader context of the changing nature of work, in particular how jobs will be changed by technological trends such as automation and artificial intelligence. Rather than focussing solely on the inevitable disruption, educators and businesses together must work out how to seize the benefits of change, while making sure people are able to adapt to new ways of working.

"A significant factor in the UK's low productivity growth is that firms aren't able to fully adopt and embed new technologies in their business-models. In many cases this is because they lack the required skills. The government must therefore view education as an integral part of its industrial strategy."

The report reveals that:

  • In 2016, 440,000 new professional jobs were created, yet there were only 316,690 first-degree UK-based graduates, leaving a recruitment gap of 123,310, more than double the gap in 2015.

  • Employers have told CBI that they expect the greatest demand for skills over the next three to five years will be for people with higher level skills where there is already a much higher employment rate.

  • By 2030, it is estimated that there will be a UK talent deficit of between 600,000 to1.2 million workers for both our financial and business sector, and technology, media and telecommunications sector.

  • Universities provide many professional and technical qualifications, estimated at around 41% of overall provision.

  • 65% of children entering primary schools today will ultimately work in new jobs and functions that don't currently exist.

  • Graduates earn significantly more than non-graduates, earning on average an extra £10,000 each year, and are more likely to be in employment than non-graduates.

  • Nearly 50% of the subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree is outdated by the time students graduate.

  • The total number of part-time students in higher and further education and with alternative providers has fallen from 539,645 in 2013/14 to 476,910 in 2016/17.

  • Future demand will also require a spread and combinations of subjects, with broad-based knowledge areas such as English language, history, philosophy, administration and management associated strongly with occupations projected to see a rise in workforce share.


  1. The report references higher level skills, which include qualifications at level 4 and 5 (such as HNCs, HNDs, and Foundation Degrees), level 6 (bachelor degrees) and level 7 and 8 (postgraduate and research degrees).

Key Contacts

Steven Jefferies

Steven Jefferies

Head of Media
Universities UK

Eloise Phillips

Eloise Phillips

Media Officer
Universities UK

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Senior Media Officer
Universities UK


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