Degrees benefit society – even when students don’t get ‘graduate jobs’

Stop worrying about the expansion of higher education and look at the positives, say Francis Green and Golo Henseke

October 31, 2016
Receiving a degree

Every few weeks, a new report emerges raising concerns about the graduate labour market in Britain.

Only recently in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) came out with a plea for a halt to the expansion drive in higher education. Earlier in the summer, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, while noting that the graduate earnings premium had been steady (or increasing, even) for many years, warned that the future might not be so bright.

Indeed, there seems to be growing concern that, maybe, higher education has expanded to the limit over the past 20 years and can take no more. So, should governments be worried about the underemployment of graduates – that is, graduates doing supposedly non-graduate jobs?

Our short answer to this question is: “Yes, but…” Let us explain why.

“Underemployment” – sometimes referred to as “overeducation” – is by no means a new phenomenon. It has always been the case that some graduates find themselves working in non-graduate jobs. This happens partly as a result of inefficient skills-matching in the labour market, often because workers are too constrained by family circumstances or stagnant housing markets to relocate to where their graduate skills are demanded.

Sometimes, a situation of underemployment is merely temporary, although the evidence suggests that this is not the case for most people.

We should always try to improve the ability of labour markets to match people with jobs. But real concern arises if underemployment is spreading or becoming more costly to the taxpayer. For these reasons, we have undertaken two studies recently to look into this question.

We found that the frequency of underemployment, which had been increasing during the 1990s, was more or less stable between 1997-2001 and 2006-2012. This happened because although the proportion of graduates in the labour force rose, from 30 per cent to 42 per cent, the proportion of graduate jobs also rose, from 31 per cent to 41 per cent – a roughly similar amount. Not only did “top” jobs such as managerial and professional occupations expand faster than others, some jobs became more skilled and were consequently redefined as graduate occupations.

Graduate underemployment was held in check at about 30 per cent of graduates. So far, so good.

Yet we also found that, for graduates, the wage “penalty” of being underemployed increased by about 12 percentage points during the same time period. Even if, on average, the earnings gap of graduates over those with only lower secondary education (GCSE level) has remained steady over the years (at about 68 per cent), there have been more graduates doing worse than the average and more doing better.

Although studies of the past shed only a partial light on the future, the increasing penalties for being underemployed are a source of concern for students, particularly when seen alongside the remarkable increase in their debt levels in recent years. Opting to study for a degree is becoming more risky. That is why our first answer to the question posed above is “yes”.

But, from society’s perspective, it is important to remember that a higher education has other purposes than just training people for employment. And consistent with this observation, economists have often found that education has benefits beyond those of the individual – for example in terms of volunteering, social trust, better citizenship (lower crime).

We wanted to know whether these findings were true for graduates, even if they ended up working in non-graduate jobs.

Using data for 21 countries collected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, we found that 34 per cent of graduates in England and Northern Ireland were working in non-graduate jobs – more than all other countries in Europe (except for Ireland). These graduates were earning less than their fellow graduates in graduate jobs. Yet compared with non-graduates, they earned more, were more satisfied with their jobs, had better health, higher levels of social trust, greater political efficacy and engaged more often in volunteer activities.

Similar patterns were found in many other countries, and indeed in all countries we found substantial social benefits from higher education – even for the graduates who do not work in graduate jobs.

This last point is crucial. From society’s perspective, higher education has substantive advantages, and this is why many believe that it should be subsidised by the state. Any political decision to cap the number of pupils going into higher education needs, therefore, to make sure that major new alternative routes (such as higher apprenticeships) will also deliver on the social front.

Francis Green is professor of work and education economics at the UCL Institute of Education and a co-investigator at the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES). Golo Henseke is a research officer at LLAKES and the CGHE at the UCL Institute of Education.

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Reader's comments (2)

So it seems that there are two groups - those who do very well as graduates and those who do less well. The former group will be very happy and have the same opportunities that have always existed for graduates. However, the latter group will likely not be in such a good situation. Given the content of the article, they may well feel better than non-graduates but there is another problem. Those earning low salaries will not clear their debts and the government will have to write off substantial sums long after I am a pensioner (likely costing those who are working then something in taxes or cuts). Moreover, the trend towards less intellectual, more "down-to-earth" content coupled with retention targets could accelerate the process of devaluing degrees. The one bright light on the horizon is the growth in degree apprenticeships which will likely continue to gain in popularity as a pragmatic solution for a large number of students.
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