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Review of higher education’s broken finance system long overdue

Charlie Taylor

What now university tuition fees and backs her call to abandon the ‘outdated’ belief that young people must go to university to succeed. Contributor Charlie Taylor, Founder & CEO – Debut

News on Theresa May launching a wide-ranging independent review into post-18 education is exciting, to say the least. For months, we have been calling for a review of the higher education’s broken finance system and it’s long overdue. However, the ridiculous rising tuition fees have been unfair to young people and without guaranteed employment or decent graduate ‘premium’ earnings, what does it say about the value of higher education?

Despite soaring tuition fees, Britain has more graduates than ever before. Yet research is showing that thousands of graduates are struggling to find employment that matches their skills, with more than a third ending up in low-skilled jobs. According to official 2016 figures, one in five graduates work in non-professional roles that do not require a degree. Our young people are paying more in time and money for a degree than previous generations, and with shrinking graduate earnings, the value of a degree is clearly falling. No longer a golden ticket to a dream graduate role, degrees alone are failing to equip students with the skills needed for the job market.

Our Prime Minister is right about one thing; university isn’t always best. University isn’t always a prerequisite for a successful career, and we should work together as a society to put an end to this mindset. While we should be promoting the need for high-quality, skilled graduates, we shouldn’t be pushing all young people down the university path, just because it’s become accepted as the norm. Young people are under enormous pressure from their parents, peers, teachers and society, in general. It’s often assumed that graduates earn more than non-graduates, and while this is true in many instances, it’s certainly possible to earn a high salary without going down the university route. It’s encouraging to see that Theresa May is pushing for technical higher education qualifications to be seen as equal to university degrees, as part of the new Government review.

It’s a well-known fact that the UK economy is facing a skills gap, and the statistics suggest that the skills owned by today’s graduates are not meeting this demand. It is important that Britain has a balance of properly equipped graduates and non-graduates to bring the right variation of skills and experience that the economy needs to flourish. A recent report by Alexander Mann Solutions has found that 28 percent of businesses have found it more difficult to fill graduate roles this season, and have struggled to source and secure relevant skills. It has been said numerous times that higher and degree-level apprenticeships could be one solution to this skills shortage, and the report also suggests that 37 percent of businesses view apprentices as the top source of emerging talent.

According to a study by Aviva, over a third of graduates regret going to university, and 50 percent believe they could have landed the same job without their degree. This calls for better careers advice to be given from early-stage education professionals, to ensure students are making the right decisions about their future. Right from the get-go, it’s important for students to be aware of the practicalities involved in pursuing certain career paths and the expectations of today’s employers.

I was shocked by findings from a one of our own careers advice reports that Debut published a few months ago, revealing that 67 percent of people aged 16-25 in the UK think they have been failed by the government’s careers advice framework; 46 percent of all respondents claimed to have not received any advice before making important educational choices relating to A-levels and degrees, and almost a quarter (22%) claim their careers advice resulted in them making the wrong career decisions. Again, this emphasises the need for better, or maybe just different careers advice. It’s encouraging to see the Government release its comprehensive careers strategy, however with the recent cabinet reshuffle, there is still a lot of uncertainty, so we will have to wait and see how quickly this will come into effect.

Political debates surrounding higher education is so focused on tuition fees, little attention is paid to exactly what value universities are giving to students, and the country as a whole. There is an urgent need for a critical review of the quality of higher education, particularly looking at the level of support and facilities available when it comes to careers advice and employment opportunities. Yes, universities are academic institutions, but they should be preparing students for employment by supplying them with key skills and a real, practical insight into the world of work. UCAS should play a role too; maybe they should coach students to select the right courses based on their career destinations, rather than asking them to tick a box and make a university choice.

Britain boasts some of the world’s best universities, yet the focus on fundamental skills required in the real working world have been neglected. UK graduates are finding it harder than ever to seamlessly transition from university to work. There is a clear mismatch between the skills students are graduating with and the reality of the graduate labour market, which is bad for all parties – the students, the employers and if we look at the bigger picture, the UK labour market.

The more equipped young people are for their career choices, the stronger their performance and the stronger UK productivity and growth will become. Many employers would rather hire candidates with practical experience behind them and a proven skill set, over those with just a degree, so clearly the answer lies in ensuring higher education also equips students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

The high pass rates of graduates at British universities is also arguably reducing the value of a degree. Data released under freedom of information laws shows that dozens of institutions, including Durham, Liverpool and Oxford, have admitted they did not fail a single student in their final exams last year. In the early 1990’s, the proportion of students graduating with a first was around 8 percent, but now a quarter of students at UK universities are leaving with first-class degrees.

With so many more graduates now achieving these top grades, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to differentiate between candidates and identify the best talent. In some ways, this can be seen in a positive light, as it forces employers to use modern, innovative recruitment and selection techniques rather than traditional hiring processes. Employers are turning to other non-traditional factors during the candidate selection process and using alternative recruitment processes, such as psychometric assessments, to identify best fit candidates. Such processes review cognitive abilities, strengths, skills and personality traits in addition to qualifications. At Debut, we have now introduced mobile psychometric assessments for our leading, multinational employers who are seeking candidates with more than just a degree. Some companies have even gone as far to completely remove degree classification for their targeting criteria and focus solely of strengths and behaviours instead.

Although it’s highly unlikely students will complain about the fact it’s nearly impossible to fail their degree, around 34 percent think university is poor value for money, and the proportion of students who share this opinion has almost doubled in the last five years, according to the annual Student Academic Experience Survey. Universities are too busy focusing on their reputation rather than their academic standards and quality of teaching. Subsequently, many young people are choosing their university based on how well-marketed it is, rather than the quality of the degree on offer.

The problem with rankings is that they encourage universities to prioritise ‘vanity factors’ such as prestige and reputation, rather than educational quality and fundamental skills. Universities have become consumed with rankings, rather than dedicating support and resources into preparing their students for the workplace. For example, The Complete University Guide 2018 looks at entry standards, student satisfaction, student-staff ratios, services and facilities spend, completion rates, staff data, and graduate prospects. Another league table, The Good University Guide 2018 ranks institutions based on similar factors, which don’t show anything about the skills that young people obtain and the relevance these have in finding a successful career outside of academia. The term ‘graduate prospects’ is measured by analysing the percentage of students from each university that manage to land themselves in a graduate-level job in their desired field, within six months of graduating. However, this does not take into consideration what support the university has provided in preparing these graduates for the workplace.

More specifically, it doesn’t track workplace-ready performance, failing to show whether or not students have the skills and traits to suit employers’ needs once they leave university. Even if a graduate has secured a job within six months, they could have been unsatisfied and left their job, or even have been fired within four weeks, but this would be recorded as a successful placement by the university. There is little to no analysis on factors that contribute to students’ key skills and employment opportunities. How many universities are providing a hub for entrepreneurship or offering students work placements in-house? What fundamental skills do their students thrive in?

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