What business wants: fewer graduates, higher fees, more input

Employers’ association sets out proposals in pre-election manifesto as Lammy defends higher education for its own sake. Hannah Fearn reports

March 9, 2010

The next government has been urged to abandon the 50 per cent target for participation in higher education and to raise tuition fees to ensure that universities produce the graduates businesses desire.

In a pre-election manifesto published today, the Association of Graduate Recruiters says action must be taken to correct the “devaluation” of degrees in recent years.

The call echoes proposals from the CBI, which last year called for the 50 per cent target to be scrapped, student support to be cut and the cap on fees to be lifted.

The AGR’s manifesto, Talent, Opportunity, Prosperity, calls on the three main political parties to support the phasing-out of the cap on fees by 2020, with safeguards put in place to protect students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It says universities must also embed employability skills in all degree courses and introduce a new Higher Education Achievement Report awarded alongside a degree certificate to provide employers with more information about graduates.

The manifesto was unveiled as David Lammy, the higher education minister, underlined the importance of a university education for its own sake.

“I know that some people think that the whole case for public funding of higher education is based on its ability to supply business with – in that patronising, too widely used and altogether too depressing phrase – ‘oven-ready graduates’.

“For my part, I think a good case could be made for revoking the charter of any university that saw itself as being just a production line for clones in business suits,” he said at a conference on graduate employability in London last week.

The AGR, which represents 750 businesses employing young graduates in the UK, says the government should introduce tax breaks for employers of university leavers entering the workplace for the first time.

Families should also be compelled to save for their children’s university education through a national savings scheme, it argues.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, said he knew that the proposals were “unlikely to receive a universal welcome”, but argued that they provided the best route to drive up standards and provide students and parents with a return on their investments.

“We urge all political parties to consider the practical recommendations in our manifesto; adopting them would have huge benefits for the economy and help to reaffirm the value of a degree,” Mr Gilleard said.

“The AGR was founded in 1968 when there were only 250,000 university students in the UK. Today that figure is more than 2.3 million, and the landscape of higher education has changed beyond recognition…In our opinion, there has never been a greater need for government, employers and universities to build a shared vision for higher education.

“I do not believe it is overstating the case to say that the reputation of higher education in the UK, as well as national prosperity and productivity, depends on it.”

The University and College Union dismissed the AGR as out of touch.

Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said: “The future for the UK is at the forefront of a high-skilled knowledge economy, and we won’t get there with fewer graduates.”

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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