Leader: Forget the job figures, look to lifelong learning

April 6, 2001

British universities have been accused for years of failing to prepare students adequately for work. The plethora of statistics released this week suggests that this accusation was false. Yet in its name all kinds of requirements have been imposed - not least that universities compile elaborate statistics tracking the employment histories of their graduates.

The education department's insistence that this particular indicator be produced implied a threat: we suspect you are not good and we are going to name and shame those who are failing. The reciprocal concern from higher education was to ensure that the indicator was as sophisticated as possible.

Reconciling the two has taken time. What emerges is unsurprising: getting a degree is a good passport to a job; it is not higher education but employers who discriminate against ethnic minorities; employment prospects are best in subjects such as teaching and medicine where a profession is having a hard time recruiting enough people to meet demand.

Other figures released this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and by the Institute for Employment Studies add further insights. For example, the IES figures suggest that potential students from families with no history of higher education put jobs first and will, if they can, cut out the expensive degree-earning stage. This makes the OECD's message about lifelong learning particularly important: people with degree potential who find themselves blocked mid-career may want to return to study. The government hopes that foundation degrees will encourage them to do so. Enrolments this autumn will show whether this hope is justified and whether the dramatic fall in full-time study by mature students since 1997 is reversed.

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