Ed West Ed West

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing

A-Level results are announced today, and with it the happy news that a record number of university places have been offered. About 42 per cent of 18-year-olds in England will go to university, but we’re still some way behind the world’s leader, South Korea, where two-thirds of young people achieve a degree. And how’s that going?

Seongho Lee, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, criticizes what he calls ‘college education inflation’. Not all students are suited for college, he says, and across institutions, their experience can be inconsistent. ‘It’s not higher education anymore,’ he says. ‘It’s just an extension of high school.’ And sub-par institutions leave graduates ill-prepared for the job market. In recent years, the unemployment rate for new graduates in Korea has topped 30 per cent.

Korea is not alone; in the West it has been increasingly obvious for some time that there is no economic demand for such large numbers of university places, as this depressing piece in May pointed out:

‘The majority of jobs being created today do not require degree-level qualifications. In the US in 2010, 20 per cent of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, 43 per cent required a high-school education, and 26 per cent did not even require that. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of young people study for degrees. This means over half the people gaining degrees today will find themselves working in jobs that don’t require one.’

This is starkly illustrated on the Unistat website, where you can see what sorts of jobs people get after taking each course. In many of the humanities courses, only a fairly small proportion of graduates go into managerial courses, and average salaries are low.

Maybe that doesn’t necessarily matter, since being a manager isn’t everything, except that the time and money invested in a course which brings almost no financial benefit may lead to disappointment and bitterness.

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