THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

August 2, 2012

With all the media hostility towards universities, it is a wonder that more vice-chancellors don't hang up their mortarboards and retire. Yet by plunging the knife in, some commentators are missing the point.

This is the view of Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE. In a guest post for the wonkhe blog, Mr Westwood looks at the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on the employment destination of graduates six months after they obtain their degrees.

"(The figures) have added significance this year as employment prospects will begin to determine the value of different institutions in the eyes of more applicants. This is what ministers are keen to see," he writes. "Not surprisingly, there has already been some negative media coverage. Headlines about unemployed graduates as well as underemployed graduates - those having to take non-graduate jobs.

"These findings come at a time when fees are rising to (£9,000) a year and many commentators can't resist seeing the data as proof that too many people go to university and that there aren't the jobs to accommodate them all."

But Mr Westwood calls this interpretation "lazy" and "potentially damaging". He says a closer look at the data reveals that on average, 90 per cent of graduates were in work or further study after six months, similar to the level of employment of people at working age with degrees throughout the UK. This is also at a time when the current employment rate for all people of working age is about 70 per cent. So, despite the bite of recession, universities are feeding the labour market, he says.

Mr Westwood goes on to point to specialist institutions that "impressively outperform" the averages, such as Arts University College Bournemouth and Harper Adams University College (with employment or further study rates of 97 per cent and 98 per cent respectively). The crux of his argument, however, concerns the "worst" performers, "those institutions that might be described by some as offering poor value for money to applicants and cited as evidence that there are too many people at university".

He considers Bolton, London South Bank and Teesside universities, which have employment or further study figures of 78.8, 78.1 and 83.3 per cent respectively.

These are often "locally facing" universities, he says, that mostly recruit locally - often mature or part-time students.

"Now look at the percentages in employment for all people of working age in these places. Bolton - 66.9 per cent, Teesside (Middlesbrough) - 54.7 per cent and many communities in South London with the lowest employment rates in the country.

"Suddenly the performance of these local universities looks much stronger."

He argues that the impact of local universities can boost human capital and support the growth of new businesses and sectors in areas of low employment.

"We should celebrate all institutions," he concludes. "Those with impressive performances ... and also those with lower percentages (that contribute to) struggling local economies."

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