Ryan Shorthouse: We need a degree of reality about university

DO you feel sorry for the school leavers not going to university this autumn?

Perhaps they didn't get a place, or maybe they didn't get the grades, but they are missing out on what is now seen as an intrinsic part of the transition to adulthood.

Pass your GCSEs, get your A-levels, go to university and then

you get a good career. David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, says a degree is "a passport to a job".

This is the dominant narrative of what it means to be successful

as a young person, and this Labour Government authored it.

They did it by funding a huge expansion in higher education

places and setting a target of getting half of 18-30 year-olds through university by 2010, as well as failing to develop a respectable

route for those wanting to build a vocational education.

As more and more young people have gone to university – now 43 per cent – those who don't go increasingly feel less likely to succeed in the future. For their parents, there is the feeling that they just haven't kept up with the Joneses, who have shipped both of their children to university.

But you can be a success even if you haven't been to university. I think of a friend of mine, a contemporary at the age of 24, who has done infinitely better than me – earning more money and greater respect. What matters most is character and skills, not qualifications.

As the Government-funded UK Commission for Employment and Skills has said: "There are many people who do not have qualifications, but are able to do a job as well as an individual with formal qualifications."

And the head of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee has argued that Britain's competitiveness depends more on meeting the skills demands of businesses, not increasing the number of people with formal qualifications.

Yes, in general those who go to university earn more over a lifetime. Higher education develops high-level knowledge and skills.

But there may be other reasons why graduates do better in the

long-run. Surely the reason they got to university in the first place is their character – their motivation to do well, their desire to conform to social expectations of success –

which will help them to succeed in their working lives anyway?

Being among thousands of young people in one place, each from different backgrounds and with different contacts, can help you get into a profession: 41 per cent of graduates said a friend from university had directly set them up for a job interview. Most employers also demand a degree as a minimum requirement.

So university helps, clearly. But it is simplistic to say the bit of paper you walk away with is the reason.

It is fallacious to suggest a degree alone is the passport to success. As more and more young people have gone to university over the past few decades, the graduate jobs market has been swamped – so much so that 48 graduates are now chasing each position.

To get on the career ladder, graduates are seeking alternative experiences to score CV points and differentiate themselves from the swathes of youngsters now armed with a degree: gap years, unpaid internships and post-graduate qualifications.

Some 85 per cent of those with post-graduate degrees are continuously in graduate-level jobs four years after graduating, compared to 56 per cent of those with a single degree.

But for those without affluent parents, there is no financial

support for these extra opportunities – opportunities that are increasingly becoming mandatory to land a job. So it is teenagers from the poorest backgrounds who are struggling the


It is deeply misleading to suggest that you just need a degree – in other words, any old degree – to get on in life. Different universities are better than others, meaning their graduates attract a higher premium. Someone from a university in the top 25 per cent is likely to earn 16 per cent more than a graduate from a former polytechnic.

Different subjects also lead to different salaries; economics graduates earn more than those who studied history. Some degree courses and career paths require a further investment of time or money for additional qualifications and experiences.

It is a myth to suggest a degree is automatically the passport to a good job; some degrees will smooth your path, but most won't, requiring something extra on top to get you where you want to be.

It's a great disservice to young people if they are not told that – it unfairly raises their expectations and leads only to disappointment, especially if they haven't planned for the extra costs needed to get into their preferred career.

Now is the time to rewrite Labour's version of getting on in life. A degree alone does not secure it. There's much more to it than that.

Ryan Shorthouse is Political Secretary of the Bow Group, a Tory think-tank.

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