Graduate bulge strains law

February 21, 1997

THE LAW SOCIETY has echoed Government concerns over an oversupply of graduates.

The society says it is worried that undergraduate courses have "expanded enormously in recent years without sufficient thought being given to their adequate resourcing or to the employment of those who complete them".

In its submission to the Dearing inquiry into higher education, the society suggests rapid expansion has led to falling standards and flooded the market with graduates who cannot find jobs to match their expectations and training.

"It seems likely that the society's concerns reflect a wider feeling among employers and their representative bodies that the enormous expansion of higher education within recent years has not been accompanied by a corresponding shift in the understanding of the purposes of higher education and the standards by which its quality should be judged," it warns.

The society's arguments appear to support those contained in the Department for Education and Employment's fourth submission to the inquiry, which said demand for graduates would be outstripped by supply by the year 2000.

In the case of the market for trainee solicitors, demand has already fallen behind supply, the society says. The quality of law graduates has also been eroded through over-recruitment to make up for under-recruitment elsewhere in higher education, it adds.

The Department of Trade and Industry, meanwhile, has said that higher education will need to offer broader, more flexible and higher quality training if it is to match industrial and commercial needs. Demand was growing for retraining and professional updating courses, and for a closer relationship between academic programmes and higher level vocational and professional training, the DTI argues in its submission to the Dearing inquiry.

Higher education played a key role in enabling business to adopt new technology to raise productivity and improve the United Kingdom's competitiveness and living standards.

But the traditional design of academic courses may not prove flexible enough to foster the kind of entrepreneurial and innovative skills needed by industry to maintain a competitive edge.

More concentrated research resources will be required if researchers are to compete at world-class levels. This implies "greater differentiation in missions between institutions". Any future set-up "should also recognise that increasingly research activity is interdepartmental and inter-institutional by providing adequate support for research centres which interlink groups both within and between universities".

On research funding, the DTI says the challenge is to "provide greater selectivity on the basis of quality and relevance of science in departments and research teams, while leaving scope for the universities themselves to make and implement strategic decisions about their part of the science and engineering base".

The Association of University Teachers Scotland has based its submission to Dearing on the "genuine possibility" of a future devolved Scottish parliament with a higher education budget.

There should be a higher education planning and funding body under a Scottish parliament, it says, operating at arm's length from institutions, as does the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. It acknowledges that SHEFC has built up expertise that a successor body, academic and professional representatives, and also trade union and business members, could harness. All of the new body's advice and decisions should be made public.

The union argues that Scottish universities should continue their broad four-year degree.

Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, has told the Dearing inquiry in its oral evidence that the needs of disabled students cannot be met by simply providing more distance learning.

"It cannot offer students the opportunity to develop skills such as teamwork and verbal communication," it says.

Some may be prevented from studying because part-time students are excluded from claiming disabled students' allowances to pay for equipment and help which is essential for them to gain access to a course.

Skill also wants the committee to consider the fact that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 excludes education from its provisions. Consequently, a university can lawfully ask a student to leave college accommodation when they become physically disabled, rather than offering an accessible room.

Law undergraduates and students in general may have to adjust their ideas about the graduate employment market, it warns.

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