GRADUATE employment opportunities are better than ever, according to new figures.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed this week that "record numbers" of graduates entered jobs within six months of graduating in 1996.
Lifelong learning minister Kim Howells hailed the findings as justification for the Government's introduction of tuition fees.
The agency's findings show that 61 per cent (116,200) of 1996 first-degree graduates found a job, compared with 60 per cent last year, while only 8 per cent were assumed to be unemployed.
"These figures show that higher education is a good investment for the individual student," said Dr Howells. "Unemployment among graduates in the labour force generally is lower still and at 4 per cent, it is less than half the rate of unemployment among nongraduates.
"Those who are fortunate to obtain degrees face significantly better work prospects. Costs of higher education should be shared with those who benefit from improved and expanded higher education in terms of employability," he said.
The Confederation of British Industry, which opposed the introduction of tuition fees, remains unconvinced.
"A change of 1 per cent is all within statistical error," said Tony Webb, director of education and training. "The Government has made a tough decision about fees. It would not have been our decision, we wanted to be sure that access to higher education would not be denied because of fees. But we'll respect the decision. And we're not going to start campaigning against the tuit-ion fees."
The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services added to the debate with its own new findings, which show that employer demand for graduates is growing strongly. The number of employer presentations on campus increased by 6.2 per cent between 1996 and 1997, an AGCAS careers service survey found. The number of graduate jobs advertised with AGCAS's careers service unit had gone up by 30.4 per cent in the year to May 1997.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said that both sets of statistics show that the time is ripe for a further expansion in student numbers.
But the Institute of Directors disagreed. Ruth Leigh, head of the IoD's policy unit said: "It is our very strong view that there is not much of a need for expansion in graduate numbers. We need to be clear about what sort of graduates they will be. It is not helpful for people to spend three years getting a poor degree from a second-rate institution.
"If we want to keep the gold standard we should stop further expansion. We've probably already gone beyond the limit. In many cases it would be much better if a student went from A levels to vocational training with a company or within a further education college. I don't understand the blind expansionists."