· 3 min read · Features

Business needs more quality, not quantity.

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Employers don't share the Government's enthusiasm for increasing the number of graduates, says Peter Oborne.

 

The House of Commons has been abuzz all this year with the debate about university tuition fees. The prime minister put his head on the block for the principle in the Commons debate in late January. But even after a narrow victory for the Government, the issue continues to create sourness and discontent.

Ministers always contend that the underlying reason for the policy is the need to lift the number of undergraduates entering university from the present level of around 30% up to 50%. The justification for the increase is very rarely challenged. Indeed among ministers the 50% figure is sacred. Anyone who queries it is automatically vilified. Recently Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, deemed anyone who did not accept the figure a snob, determined to keep university education as a middle-class preserve. This is a cheap, unworthy slur, typical of someone who is on slippery ground.

Furthermore, there are strong reasons to question Hewitt's figure. Who decided upon 50%? Why not 40%, or 100%? Or even 10%? Government ministers, perhaps confused about the purpose of university education, find it hard to answer the question. More significantly still, they find it difficult to deal with the questions from industry and business about whether we want to increase the number at all. It was interesting to read the recent remarks of Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association for Graduate Recruiters (AGR). Gilleard warned that: 'Quality must not be sacrificed for quantity.' He was speaking as the AGR unveiled results of a survey of its member companies, all of which recruit straight from universities. Half of AGR's members felt that the UK is producing too many graduates, while only 29% disagreed. A still larger proportion 60% believed that the expansion of university education was having a damaging effect on the calibre of graduates emerging from the system. What made the AGR survey so significant was the fact that members already feel that too many graduates are being produced even before the mooted expansion of higher education over the next decade.

It is worth remembering that the Institute of Directors (IoD) was warning as long ago as 1995, under a Conservative government, that too many graduates were being produced. Perhaps it is worth pondering their reasons at that time. The IoD argued that the real skills shortage in the British economy is related to blue-collar, practical jobs rather than white-collar desk work. The building industry, for instance, desperately needed (and still needs) plumbers, bricklayers and electricians. It needs these far more than managers and accountants. Ruth Lea, former head of research at the IoD and now director at the Centre for Policy Studies, argues that the Government is actually failing employers by setting itself a dogmatic target for the expansion of tertiary education. She cites the case of a friend of hers who runs a large bakery. What the bakery needs most of all is what in the Army would be called non-commissioned officers people with real skills who have learned the techniques of baking bread.

Vocational skills are what the economy really needs, not a never-ending supply of graduates with degrees in dodgy subjects from even dodgier universities. In any case, expanding the numbers in higher education is unfair on the students themselves. It raises expectations that in many cases can never be delivered. People who would have been happier and more fulfilled starting life on the shop floor and working their way up don't always know what to do with their degree. Their life chances have been diminished, not increased, and their value to the economy reduced. The CBI, which likes to stay close to the Government and closer still to the conventional wisdom of the day, supports the 50% target. One of the problems about the new policy is that, other than one or two such trade bodies, most real employers were never asked for their views.

There is no evidence that the CBI has any clearer idea than Government ministers why it agrees with the target. However, employers at the sharp end of business feel very much more sceptical, as the AGR survey shows.