The government goal of sending 50 per cent of young people into higher education could "exacerbate" the economic divide between the North East and South East, according to research commissioned by civil servants, writes Paul Hill.
The study carried out for the Department for Education and Skills warns that increasing the supply of graduates in the North East without increasing the demand for degree-educated employees "could make matters worse" rather than revive the region's fortunes.
The research, by Frank Coffield of the Institute of Education, University of London, urges ministers to focus on employer attitudes and encourage investment by businesses as much as developing the skills of employees.
Professor Coffield explains that the Treasury has identified five root causes of the economic "productivity gap" between the UK and the US, France and Germany: weaknesses in competition, enterprise, innovation, investment and skills.
One fifth of the 30 per cent gap in productivity between the UK and France and Germany is a direct consequence of lower skills in Britain.
More than half the new jobs created in the North East in recent years have been in call centres, but "hundreds of these jobs are now being relocated to India", Professor Coffield says.
If there are too few high-skilled jobs waiting for North East graduates when they leave university, they may either leave the region to look for work or take employment that does not demand a degree.
His report warns: "In other words, the national target of 50 per cent participation... is likely to exacerbate the already substantial divisions between the North East and the South East when these young people graduate and seek employment."
Professor Coffield adds: "The North East requires a programme of economic renewal that looks at all the five causes of poor productivity, and exclusive attention to the supply side is likely to make matters worse."
The aim of a higher education participation rate of 50 per cent among young people by the end of the decade was set out in the Government's 2001 election manifesto - although recently ministers have recast the target as being to "move towards" 50 per cent participation.
Nevertheless, the DFES said: "The department accepts the need to increase employer demand for skills as well as reform the supply. We are also engaging with the regional arms of the Learning and Skills Council, regional development agencies and regional skills partnerships to identify the best ways to promote and use skills in reducing regional disparities."
But Professor Coffield told The Times Higher : "The response from the DFES shows that they have still not focused the key arguments that academics have been presenting to them for years, namely, that the main aim is not to increase employer demand for skills but to raise the quality of the goods and services we produce so employers could increase the volume of training without having much or any impact on the quality of production.
"Education for the sake of education makes sense, but who trains for the sake of training?"