A doctor in the public house

April 21, 2000

Why do some graduates pull pints? Their degree choices may be to blame, Frances Cairncross says.

In the past decade, Britain has seen an explosion in the proportion of youngsters entering higher education. In the first half of the 1990s, the figure rose by 80 per cent.

The Labour government would like to push the figures higher still, and especially to increase the proportion of youngsters from poorer homes who stay in education. But is it right to do so?

Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, has his doubts. He says the education system elevates the academic over the vocational and may thus fail a youngster who wants, say, to become a plumber. If we put more effort into technical training, we would make education more socially inclusive.

What about the young who do stay on in education? Overall, graduates find jobs more easily than non-graduates do and earn more, too. And because higher education is highly subsidised, many more people go to university than would do so if they had to foot the whole bill.

This matters, because research at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics suggests that between 20 and 30 per cent of the workforce is "overeducated", in the sense that workers have higher educational qualifications than they need to do their job. But what seems to be happening is not just "credentialism", where employers insist on qualifications even when these do not appear necessary. More curiously, the CEP work suggests that a large minority of workers have skills that are not being fully used at work.

It would be perverse to conclude from this that we devote too much money to education. Time and again, employers complain about the problems they have finding good people. As firms seek self-reliance, creativity, innovative ability and good judgement, they are aware that university education helps develop all these. As Bill Nuti, who heads Cisco Systems in Europe, says:

"Emotional intelligence is probably the key to success in the internet economy. It's about creativity, it's about cross-functional thinking." The way to get that, he says, is via a well-rounded university education.

So why do we have graduates pulling pints and PhDs serving in The Gap? The answer, says Anna Vignoles, one of the CEP team, is that some graduates are particularly likely to underuse their education: humanities graduates and those with poor quantitative skills. Fail GCSE maths and take a degree at a second-tier university in, say, fine arts and you are much less likely to end up paid a graduate wage for a graduate job than you are if you study engineering, maths or IT.

How do we get that message through? Perhaps when GCSE choices are being made, a graph might be pinned up in every classroom projecting future pay for different specialisations. The trouble is, only the numerate young would understand it.

Frances Cairncross is on the staff of The Economist. The Analysis programme "Learning to Learn" will be broadcast on Radio 4 on April 23, 9.30pm.

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