Europe’s graduates are finding jobs twice as quickly as non-graduates, according to a EURYDICE report presented to European Union education ministers this month.
But the report’s claim that one in five are “overqualified” for the jobs they take has been challenged by independent analysts, who have cast doubt on the validity of the definition used.
Based on figures from 2009, the report says that on average in the 33 countries with data, it takes five months for graduates to enter the workforce, as opposed to 9.8 months for people with lower qualifications.
The longest times for lower secondary school-leavers were reported in Slovakia (24 months), Bulgaria (22 months), Poland (16 months) and Cyprus-Spain (15 months). For those with tertiary education all countries reported fewer than five months to find work, except for Greece (13 months), Turkey (12 months), Italy (10 months) and Romania (eight months).
The EURYDICE network is managed by the EU Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency in Brussels, and provides information on 37 national units from all 33 countries participating in the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-13 – the EU 27, EFTA countries, Croatia and Turkey.
This year it has added a chapter on qualification levels and transition to employment to the report, Key Data on Education in Europe 2012.
The report says a growing number of young people appear to be “overqualified” for the types of employment they find, although this is only discussed in the summary and not in detail in the report.
This is a core issue in many reports produced by the EU commission, accompanied by requests for more effective forecasting of the labour market and better guidance for student counsellors, in an effort to match young people’s educational qualifications with actual employment opportunities.
In contrast, the OECD’s Education at a Glance report uses more robust indicators for the financial rewards of higher education in the short term and over a lifetime. It shows significant differences in income levels between tertiary graduates and those with lower qualifications.
Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s indicators and analysis division, questioned the assumption behind the EURYDICE claims. He told University World News: “Such language about ‘overqualification’ assumes that our economies and labour markets are a zero-sum game.
“The other way to look at this is to see those one in five individuals who could do more than their current job requires as people who can innovate in their jobs and work environment.
"In the 1950s, everybody laughed when the Japanese sent college graduates into car factories, because car manufacturing was seen as a low-skill blue-collar job. But we stopped laughing when those people built the world’s most productive car industry.”
Jo Ritzen, a former Dutch education minister and former rector of Maastricht University, recalls an incident in the 1990s when a finance minister threw a newspaper article down on the table in front of him and asked why the minister of education continued to expand higher education when graduates were simply replacing people with less education. Could he perhaps be a little more thrifty?
“Since then we have learned that it is not about replacement, but rather about upgrading,” Ritzen told University World News. “The presence of higher education graduates in the firm makes shifts possible in production and production technology which move firms into better competitive positions. So ‘underemployment’ of graduates only occurred as a temporary state, as a transition.”
He said the huge increase in graduates over the past decade had not led to job scarcity and lower wages for them, indicating that ‘underemployment’ had not occurred on a large scale. Instead it had fuelled economic growth, with higher relative wages for graduates.
Alexandra Terziera, a researcher for the Illuminate Consulting Group, an international higher education consultancy company, also cast doubt on the usefulness of the claim that one in five graduates is overqualified.
She said statistical definitions varied and were not measured by any international standard so it was possible that data could be interpreted in different ways to suit political purposes. Eurostat, for instance, does not have a definition of ‘overqualified’.
“The statement that 20% of tertiary graduates are overqualified seems to be the outcome of the personal judgment of the political analyst drafting the text,” she said.
Jamil Salmi, a lead education specialist with the World Bank’s Human Development Network, told University World News that the premium for tertiary education graduates was still strong, and not only in the probability of finding a job, time to employment and most likely salary levels.
This was despite the higher proportion of qualified young people and the European economic crisis.
“This confirms the importance of skills in European economies,” Salmi stated. He said the fact that some tertiary education graduates obtain jobs for which they are considered to be ‘overqualified’ can be attributed to two causes that are not mutually exclusive.
On the one hand, with the economic recession affecting many European countries, the rate of job creation is slower and the number of jobs available is lower than the number of secondary and tertiary graduates. Because of higher qualifications, tertiary level graduates have greater chances of getting a job, but the job may not be at the level of qualifications corresponding to their education and training.
“On the other hand, the ‘overqualification’ phenomenon may be to some extent the result of a mismatch between high requirements on the employers' part and perceived inadequate skills and competencies on the students and graduates' part.”
The report warns that, while the proportion of young people aged 20 to 24 years in Europe completing upper secondary education has shown an upward trend over the past decade to reach 79% in 2010, in some countries the proportion of young people graduating is falling.
Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Finland and Norway experienced a decline in the proportion of graduates in the 20 to 24 age group, the report said. The most significant decrease was registered in Norway where it was almost 24% lower in 2010 than in 2000, causing the country to plunge below the European average.
This is despite the fact that investment in higher education has not ceased because of the economic crisis, and that some governments have taken action to stem such reductions.
There has been a significant increase in pupil-student per capita investment, notably in Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark and Lichtenstein, and investment levels have held steady in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria and across the EU.
How Norway, which has invested most in per capita education and increased its investment from 2000-10, has experienced a sharp reduction in graduates requires further analysis.
The report highlights the problem of falling birthrates in most European countries from 1985 to 2005, with a total reduction in population over 25 years in the EU from 204.3 million in 1985 to 172.6 million in 2010.
One of the most dramatic pieces of new evidence is of declining numbers of graduates from teacher training courses in most European countries, with several countries – notably Germany, the UK, Italy, The Netherlands and Belgium – already facing a shortage of teachers. In the long term this could have an impact on the attainment level of secondary school-leavers applying to university.
The European Commission is addressing the teacher training shortfall by trying to improve the attractiveness of entering the teaching profession, through providing a million teachers with opportunities to gain experience abroad as part of the proposed Erasmus for All programme.
Drive to double EU study numbers abroad
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