We need to have a big conversation about the nature and purposes of a university or college education
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 August 2017
Especially since the surge in university and college enrolments around 1990, Britain’s workforce has become very much more educated. The proportion with tertiary (post-school) qualifications has been rising very fast – at roughly one percentage point per year (see diagram).
And we can say confidently that the stock of highly-educated workers is going to go on rising for many years. In 2015 the tertiary education gap between the cohort of 30-34 year-old “millennials” and the cohort of 50-64 year-olds was 21 percentage points. As the older group starts to retire, the overall education level of the workforce is sure to increase.
The question is, if the level goes on rising will our college and university leavers continue to find jobs that match their education level?
Taken with permission from Salvatori, A. The Anatomy of Job Polarisation in the UK. IZA DP No. 9193 (2015)
Can we use evidence to help provide an answer? Experts are quite good at building up a picture of what has happened in the past, but when it comes to the future it seems we are divided.
There are optimists who are confident that employers will be creating enough new graduate jobs for the foreseeable future. Mostly these are economists who have watched the “earnings premium” for staying on into universities and colleges, and found that, by and large, this premium has not been significantly reduced – at least not yet. Optimists point to how innovative technologies have created new jobs in the past, and expect them to continue to do so.
Others, however, are more dubious. Even some of us economists are worried that the growth of graduate jobs surrounding the IT revolution may soon slow down. That has already started to happen in the United States. And it is estimated that automation will soon hit so many spheres of employment, with the spread of machine learning technologies, that even many high-skilled jobs will be displaced. The uncertainties brought about by Brexit do not make the forecasting of the demand for graduates any easier.
We cannot, and should not, turn off the graduation tap now. Because the evidence also tells us that more tertiary education, even for those who don’t finish up in graduate jobs, is good for society collectively.
So my prediction is that we will soon find that we need to have a big conversation about the nature and purposes of a university or college education. Is it just to help young people get jobs, or should universities also be aiming to generate knowledge that serves the public good, and to develop students who contribute to society? How can universities improve the ways that they drive the local and the global economy?
This blog is reproduced from my blog for the Government Office for Science Foresight project exploring the future of skills and lifelong learning in a changing world. See https://foresightprojects.blog.gov.uk/. It also appears on the Llakes website.
Read my evidence review (Green, F. (2016) “Skills Demand, Training and Skills Mismatch: A Review of Key Concepts, Theory and Evidence.” Evidence presented to Go Science and Foresight project: “Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning”) to find out more about the graduate labour market over the long term in Britain, the decline in workplace training, and about skills mismatch.