Is Britain heading for a glut of graduates or will even the government's 50 per cent participation target prove too low for the country to thrive in the knowledge economy? You could reach either conclusion from the painstaking but contradictory research published in the past fortnight alone. One arm of the business community, represented by the British Chambers of Commerce, takes the pessimistic view, while a report commissioned by the Council for Industry and Higher Education argues the opposite.
Bad news and criticism of government policy always make bigger headlines than support for an existing approach, but the "glut" theory has certainly been gaining ground. Philip Brown and Anthony Hesketh, in their book The Mismanagement of Talent , estimate that less than a third of new jobs require graduate skills, rather than four-fifths, as claimed by ministers.
And last week's Graduate Careers survey of 16,000 final-year students found that little more than a third expected to go straight into graduate work.
But there is an unreal quality to much of the debate, which smacks of a bygone age both of employment and higher education. Brown and Hesketh, for example, cite falling opportunities at the "household name organisations" where graduates expect to work, while the chambers of commerce pose a stark choice between academic higher education and vocational training at work or in college. Neither reflects today's reality. In an era of mass participation, graduates know that they will not all work for blue-chip companies and universities know that many of their most popular courses will be vocational rather than academic.
Students will judge for themselves, particularly when they are paying Pounds 3,000 a year for tuition, whether higher education is a good investment. That decision, one would hope, will not be solely about future salary levels. But even if it is, higher education has a good story to tell. International comparisons consistently calculate the salary premium enjoyed by UK graduates to be among the highest in the world, and the experience of the US, with much longer experience of mass higher education, suggests it will remain so.
One reason is that, whatever conclusions academics may reach about the level of skills needed for particular jobs, employers will make their own judgements. Occupations that were once open to school-leavers (such as journalism) are now dominated by graduates, and the likely financial penalty for opting out of higher education rises accordingly. Most graduates, especially outside the select group of universities covered by last week's survey, are prepared to take time to land a job that lives up to their expectations. The record applications figures issued by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service this week do not suggest that the pessimists' message is getting through.