Is ‘peak degree’ a myth?

Despite fears of saturation, an ever-growing army of graduates could just counter – rather than heighten – the threat of machines taking all our jobs

October 12, 2017
Woman and little girl drinking coffee
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Alma mater. Nourishing mother. The maternal metaphor makes perfect sense when you consider the central role that mothers play in their children’s educational aspirations.

A study by academics at Lancaster University Management School makes this clear: the analysis of 43,000 young people, published in 2010, found that for every extra year that a woman stays in full-time education, her daughter’s chances of staying for an extra year increase by 20 per cent, and her son’s by 10 per cent. The study found no similar correlation for fathers and their children.

This has a bearing on the trajectory of demand for higher education. Female participation in the UK exceeded male participation for the first time back in 1992, and since then the gap has widened significantly.

Overall participation now stands at 49 per cent – a record high. But in 2015-16, there was an 11.9 percentage point gap between female and male participation (up from 10.2 percentage points the year before).

The implication is likely to be continued growth in demand from coming generations brought up by mothers who are themselves graduates.

It’s one reason, perhaps, why David Willetts, who has written extensively on generational inequality, is so proud of the abolition of the student numbers cap. It may also help to explain ongoing attempts to increase capacity and efficiency via the expansion of alternative providers and fast-track degrees.

This is not a UK-specific trend, however, and in our news pages we assess parental influence on educational attainment across the world.

Two key questions are posed by this ever-growing demand: how to pay for a system that can cope (a very live issue in the UK, which is facing yet another funding review), and what becomes of all the graduates?

In our cover story this week, we take a close look at the “degreeification” of jobs that were once filled by non-graduates, and the emergence of new professional areas catered for by a plethora of targeted degrees (the sort often ridiculed by the popular press).

Highly relevant to this discussion is the changing nature of work itself.

A study published last month by Pearson and Nesta looked at the combined impact of various trends, including automation, to predict what the labour market will look like in 2030, and what attributes will be most in demand.

Using categories taken from the Occupational Information Network (a US database of workplace competencies, so excuse the jargon), the report ranks “judgement and decision making”, “fluency of ideas” and “active learning” as the top three. Another attribute that it suggests will be particularly valuable is critical thinking, often touted as a hallmark of higher education.

A second notable aspect of the study is that whereas previous research has reached binary conclusions – that most of us are in jobs that are either very likely to disappear or very likely to be safe from obsolescence – this study is much less certain in its predictions.

Its authors, academics at the Oxford Martin School and Nesta, conclude that the vast majority of us – about 70 per cent – are in jobs with a 50-50 chance of being more in demand or less in demand by 2030.

While this sounds more realistic – that we simply do not know whether many jobs will go down the tubes – it’s not an easy forecast to act on.

But many universities are acting. There has already been a shift towards weaving into courses essential expertise such as data fluency, acknowledging that this is now crucial in many professions.

Some have reorganised their entire course structure. For example, the University of Sydney is moving towards a four-year degree with a focus on problem-solving and “cultural competency” to give graduates the skills “to tell the machines what to do”, to quote vice-chancellor Michael Spence.

Others will be watching closely, with a view to emulating some of these pioneers.

Quite where this ends up is hard to predict. But for those still hoping to be relevant in the workplace of 2030, having uniquely human skills – and being a graduate – will surely help.

Robots don’t have alma maters, or mothers.

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