For those who believe too many people go to university these days, the latest ONS report on graduate employment seems to provide good ammunition. But a closer look suggests they’d be firing blanks.

According to the ONS study, in the last twenty years graduates have gone from being 17% of the population to 38%. It also identifies a growing trend in the percentage of recent graduates working in non graduate jobs by studying the proportion of those who left university in the previous five years and are in jobs not requiring a degree. Twelve years ago that was fairly close to a third; now it’s approaching a half.

Given those two findings you’d be forgiven for concluding the figures endorse the view we have too many graduates and the expansion of higher education has been a big mistake.

But any claim this data clearly firms that up would be wrong. Most of the rise in the proportion of recent graduates in lower skilled jobs has happened since the 2008 recession. The significance being these findings easily support a different view that a symptom of a sickening economy is it can’t provide a good number of graduate jobs.

In short, the real problem, highlighted by the ONS study, is there aren’t enough highly skilled jobs in the UK economy and not there are too many highly educated people.

In media briefings the ONS stressed their study should not automatically be interpreted as supporting the “too many go to university” argument. It remains to be seen if that message got through. Meanwhile, there are other findings in the report which can make a good case for going to university.

Two key ones are :

– Confirmation of a graduate premium in earnings.

Over the last decade amongst the over 25s graduate average earnings were higher than those of apprentices and those with just A levels. Graduates’ earnings also reached a higher peak and levelled out at a later age than non graduates. For example, the gross annual wage for those reaching just A level standard increased until the age of 34 when it levelled out at around £22,000. But graduate earnings grew at a faster pace to reach an average of £35,000 at around the age of 38.

– Getting a degree means you’re more likely to be in work than those with lower qualifications.

Over the last decade graduates have had consistently higher employment and lower unemployment rates than non graduates. In 2013 the graduate employment rate was 87%. It was 83% for those with just A levels. Within five years of graduating, 9% of those with degrees are unemployed. Amongst 21 to 30 year old non graduates the unemployment rate is 13%.

These statistics do paint a positive story about the value of higher education. But to make the most convincing case other important questions shouldn’t be dodged.

The first is what will be the impact of the graduate debt on those paying £9,000 fees? The ONS doesn’t attempt to address this. Wisely its officials decline to predict the future, but others will be cautious about promoting the value of higher education when the fall out of that debt on the individual and the public finances in England is uncertain.

Another issue is how evenly the benefits of a university education are distributed both across the UK and between all universities and all courses? Again this report doesn’t pretend to address those in detail but it does have useful clues.

In line with other economic data comparing UK regions – London trumps the rest. England’s capital has the highest proportion of graduates in the population (60% in inner London; 45% in outer). Scotland comes second with 41%. The lowest regions were the West Midlands (30%) and the North East (29%). What role should universities play in addressing this imbalance?

According to the statistics, the degree subject also makes a significant difference to a graduate’s fortunes. This year people with a degree in medicine or dentistry had the highest employment rate of all graduates at 95%. And perhaps contrary to popular belief, those with media and information studies degrees, for example journalism, public relations, librarian skills, followed closely at 93%.

Graduates in humanities have the weakest employability at 84%, followed by arts (88%), languages (87%) and education (88%).

However, good employment prospects aren’t always backed up by the promise of good salaries. While the medical graduates had the highest median pay at £45,600 a year, media and information studies graduates had the lowest pay of all subject groups at £21,000 – a sobering message about some parts of our creative industries and perhaps a call to arms to those universities which thrive on delivering these courses to try to improve the market rate.

Nursing, midwifery, technology and agricultural sciences are all amongst the subjects with the highest employment rates. The success of these subjects reflects the success of the diversity and of specialism in our higher education sector – a message which bears more repetition.

Still it comes as no surprise the ONS analysis of graduates from Russell Group universities show they tend to work in higher skilled more highly paid jobs than other graduates. The ONS suggests two main reasons: Russell Group graduates are more likely to study subjects attracting higher salaries such as medicine or other sciences. It is also argued the high entry requirements to Russell Group universities mean their graduates are more likely to go into highly skilled roles.

This of course scrapes the surface of the complex and deep rooted debates about the role, impact and influence of the Russell Group. But whatever those arguments, the data on the Russell Group adds to one general and reasonable conclusion that the benefits of getting a degree are not enjoyed equally across the sector or the UK.


Sue Littlemore is a media consultant for GuildHE. Sue is an education journalist and former BBC Education Correspondent

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