The case for more isn’t so simple, Mr Willetts

January 9, 2014

No one denies the wider benefits of a university degree. However, in his advocacy of an expansionist higher education policy (“Why the cap no longer fits”, 2 January), David Willetts, the universities and science minister, omits to mention some of the unintended economic and social consequences:

  • Those with degrees are outstripping the number of traditional graduate-level jobs available. The higher graduate employment rate compared with non-graduates that Willetts quotes is a result of graduates taking lower level jobs. This is also rapidly eroding the graduate lifetime earnings differential
  • Employers fuel credentialism by demanding degrees for what were once non-graduate jobs. Furthermore, with higher degrees becoming more of a requirement for the best positions, students from more affluent backgrounds are usually the ones who have the wherewithal to pursue their studies to this level
  • The university status hierarchy is becoming more sharply defined. Middle-class students, for a variety of reasons, have better access to elite universities and higher-level graduate jobs, with the result that widening participation does not benefit working-class students equally well. Although some undoubtedly rise from rags to riches, many more are being sold a pup
  • Social mobility through a university education has become a mantra, but not everyone can have the top jobs in our unequal society. Whether it is a question of lack of ability or opportunity, the rhetoric of aspiration and meritocracy creates discontent among those who cannot succeed.

Add to all this an increasingly ethnically differentiated workforce, with employers turning to willing migrants to fill lower-skilled, lower-paid vacancies, and we begin to see that matters are not nearly as simple as the minister makes out.

Yanina Sheeran
Shipley, West Yorkshire

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