Higher education: all change

Mike Barnard asks what effects new policies might have

Mike Barnard, of leading graduate recruitment website Milkround Online, asks what effects new policies might have.

Students and graduates are experiencing an increasingly rough ride into employment during this recession - with no signs of improvement any time soon. This year's annual Higher Education Careers Services Unit report What Do Graduates Do? revealed the highest number of graduates out of work six months after graduating for nearly two decades. It's another bitter pill for those in, or seeking to be in, higher education to swallow in what has been a turbulent few weeks.

Liberal Democrat MPs backed down on their pledge to resist the removal of the cap on tuition fees. There was confirmation that these fees would increase - the Browne report fuelled fears that future student debt would creep up to �40,000 for those attending top universities. These tough economic times are certainly having an impact on students and graduates.

Degrees of separation?

Informed commentators claim many universities will face closure as government cutbacks will not be recuperated by tuition fees alone. Fewer universities and spiraling costs combined with declining employment prospects will make going to university less of an option for many potential students, and so it seems likely that we will witness a decline in the number of graduates leaving universities in coming years.

But could this trend have some upsides? It may serve to open people's eyes to alternative career paths. There have been many complaints over the years of too many A-level students seeing university as the only way of fulfilling their career dreams. A degree appeared to be the going rate for all jobs. But this has never been the case - and has certainly been proved not to be the case during the recession. Exposure to the workplace, whether through a placement, internship or even work experience, is the real necessity for getting a job. Although there are many industries which will always require a degree, such as banking and law, other sectors, business and media for example, do not put out a �graduate only" sign on their industries.

A learning experience

Changes in higher education may also open the eyes of those who still choose to go to university. While the knowledge gained during three years of, say, a business or media-related degree might appear relevant on paper, unless it was supplemented by real experience gained before graduation, a prospective candidate was always going to be untested in the eyes of employers. Now jobs are at a premium, the desirability of experience will become even more obvious as graduates will realise that they must now seek it if they are to find work. It might be hard getting a career started without a degree, but a degree is no longer the free pass into the working world it once was. Those who may have gone to university to mull over their future in a leisurely way will be pushed to start work on their careers sooner as they will graduate with debts to pay off. The higher education landscape may be about to change, but there are arguments to be made in favour of those changes.

Key statistics from What Do Graduates Do? 2010

  • Average graduate starting salary: �19,677
  • Average London salary: �22,228
  • 2009 graduates entering employment 59.2%
  • 2009 graduates unemployed six months after graduation: 8.9%

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