The UK is wasting money producing overeducated graduates who lack the skills that employers want, an education and management expert has claimed.
The government would be better channelling the money that goes to universities into other post-16 education and training, according to Alison Wolf, professor of management at King's College London and former professor of education at London University's Institute of Education.
Professor Wolf told delegates at a Learning and Skills Research Network conference at Warwick University that the emphasis on degrees had become more acute with the government's target to get 50 per cent of the young population into higher education.
She said that this amounted to a "tax on young people", because it was pressuring students to aim for courses that might not be appropriate and often led them into debt.
Those who did not go into higher education were assumed to be of low ability, Professor Wolf told conference delegates, so "doors are closed against them".
She added: "We have to stop people thinking that universities are the be all and end all.
"The way we have been focusing all our attention on academic sixth forms and universities has been totally misconceived."
Professor Wolf is giving evidence to the Commons education select committee inquiry into the government's skills strategy that begins on Monday.
She said the fact that young people were lured into higher education with the promise of higher paid jobs had caused "profound misunderstanding" by successive governments about the relationship between higher education and the economy.
Policy-makers drew the inaccurate conclusion that the more someone earned, the more productive they were, she said.
Meanwhile, growth in enrolment and graduation rates had outpaced changes in the way occupations were structured, so that up to a third of graduate employees found that they were overeducated for their job, she said.
Yet, she said, employers were "desperate for people with sub-graduate academic and job-specific skills".
Professor Wolf said: "There is no obvious need for more graduates of any and every type. Universities are hugely expensive, even though per-student spending has plummeted, and with it the amount of real teaching.
"Meanwhile, there are real shortages of skills that need to be taught - basic skills, maths, construction, technicians. Even in a narrowly economic sense, we have surely got our priorities wrong."
Universities UK dismissed Professor Wolf's arguments as "mistaken".
A spokeswoman said: "Every survey of employers shows that it is graduates who are in demand, and in growing numbers.
"If business and industry cannot find the skilled graduates they need here, they will go to our competitors, and many of them - notably the US and Japan - have higher education participation rates well above 50 per cent."
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said graduates were better equipped than non-graduates to cope with the increased mobility in the employment market. "Graduates still bring added value to a job," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Learning and Skills Development Agency said: "Getting the balance right between the supply of people with appropriate qualifications and the needs of employers is very difficult in a fast-moving economy - and more research is needed on labour market trends to get this right.
"What has been recognised is the need to boost the numbers of people qualified at sub-degree level in areas of skills shortages such as construction and engineering, and the need for tailored qualifications that meet specific employer needs."