A REPORT showing the growing financial benefits brought by a degree has added more fuel to the great tuition fees debate.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters has predicted that job vacancies for graduates in 1997 will be the best this decade and that graduate starting salaries, already rising, will grow further this year. The good news is contained in the AGR's annual Graduate Salaries and Vacancies survey, analysing 1996 and forecasting for 1997.
But the AGR and the National Union of Students warn that the figures should not be used to support the introduction of tuition fees.
The survey found that 6 per cent more graduates were recruited in the first ten months of 1996 than in the whole of 1995. And the AGR predicts that the number of vacancies will continue to grow in 1997, with a further increase of 11.5 per cent. It also found that graduate starting salaries increased faster than average earnings. The 1996 graduate starting salary increased 5.4 per cent to Pounds 14,750 and the average starting salary in 1997 is expected to rise by a further 4.4 per cent to Pounds 15,325.
Graduate salaries were also said to increase at a "considerably faster rate than average earnings". The salaries of 1995 graduates had increased by 12 per cent compared with an average of only 3.7 per cent. The salaries of 1993 graduates had increased by 54 per cent, compared with an average of only 10 per cent.
"The economy is picking up and competition to recruit the most able graduates is hotting up," said AGR chief executive Roly Cockman. "Employers also realise that they have to recruit at graduate level as the old pool of people who were recruited at A level has dried up - they are all choosing university."
Mr Cockman said that it is inevitable that the new findings will be used to support the introduction of tuition fees, said to be topping the agenda of Sir Ron Dearing's report into higher education.
The AGR made its opposition to tuition fees explicit in its submission to Sir Ron, saying that "access to higher education should not be dependent on the ability to pay up front." But Mr Cockman conceded: "It is of considerable financial benefit to you if you are a graduate."
An NUS spokesman said: "There is absolutely no justification for introducing tuition fees, not in this or any other survey." The NUS pointed out that despite the encouraging figures for job prospects and salaries, the average student debt for 1996 finalists was Pounds 1,982.