Leader: Seven-year test passed with ease

June 18, 2004

Anyone who thought that even research as comprehensive as the study published this week by Peter Elias and Kate Purcell would satisfy the critics of higher education growth has not been following the debate.

Attitudes are too entrenched, some of the judgements too subjective for either side to back down now. While ministers have seized on this week's findings, the Conservatives and other sceptics will be just as vocal when academics from Bath, Cardiff and Essex universities present their results next month.

However, a national survey of graduates seven years into their careers is an advance in itself and cannot be ignored. Elias and Purcell report high levels of personal satisfaction and a continuing salary premium, although the link between degree skills and subsequent employment will remain in question. Are employers using a degree as an extremely expensive pre-selection tool, or have they come to realise that posts previously filled by school-leavers are more productive in the hands of graduates? Most new jobs may require higher education, as previous research has suggested, but they will still be outnumbered by existing posts that have to be refilled.

To some extent, the debate about the "right" proportion of the population to educate to degree level is an artificial one sparked by the setting of an unnecessary target. Young (and older) people will decide for themselves whether to go into higher education and employers will determine the level of salary premium paid to graduates. This week's survey does not suggest a waning in enthusiasm in either group. But while fees represent less than the full cost of tuition - as they will for the foreseeable future - participation levels will remain a matter of public policy.

Elias and Purcell do not make the case for unlimited expansion, but they take the wind out of the sails of those who rail against the growth that has already taken place. The experience of the most recent graduates appears surprisingly similar to their predecessors'; most are on their chosen career track and say they are using the skills they acquired at university. Such positive outcomes take no account of the personal and social benefits of higher education, which are often forgotten in the overwhelmingly utilitarian debates on this subject.

Whatever the precise level of graduate salaries at a given point in the career cycle, these findings will weaken the case for a standstill, let alone reduction, in student enrolments. However select the system, it is doubtful that the proportion of graduates in "non-graduate" jobs would fall much below 11 per cent. But what the research demonstrates above all is the nonsense of assessing career outcomes only six months after graduation.

Universities and colleges may find it hard to keep track of leavers, but a way must be found if the future of higher education is to be based on accurate information.

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