One million more graduate jobs than graduates – UUK report

Suggestions that too many young people now go to university and that there are not enough ‘graduate jobs’ for everyone streaming out of higher education institutions are not restricted to the United Kingdom – but they need knocking on the head, says Universities UK (UUK).

The vice-chancellors’ advocacy body, which proclaims itself as the collective voice for 140 UK universities, commissioned an investigation to test some of the common assumptions that regularly appear in the British tabloid press, such as ‘Everyone goes to university nowadays’ and ‘There aren’t enough graduate jobs’.

The results were published on 11 April 2022 in a report, titled Busting Graduate Job Myths, which suggests there are almost one million more professional jobs than workers with degrees in the UK to fill them and that twice as many UK employees are “underqualified than overqualified”.

According to the report, Office for National Statistics data shows that the number of UK workers in professional jobs has risen from 11.1 million to 15.9 million since 2004.

Graduate vacancies are now 20% higher than in 2019, it says, quoting figures from the Institute of Student Employers, with job vacancies for graduates expected to increase by more than a fifth in 2022 compared to 2021.

27.7% of workers are underqualified

Other data used by the report’s authors includes an estimate by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that while 14% of the UK workforce is overqualified for their current role, almost twice as many, 27.7%, are underqualified – the second highest level of the entire OECD, behind Ireland.

Charlie Ball, senior consultant for labour market intelligence at Jisc in the UK and the report’s lead author, said in a blog for the WONKHE policy think tank: “Skills supply and demand are complex, not always easy to examine and constantly changing.” He said that the UK was far from being alone in struggling to understand the available data.

He described the new report as “an evidence-based and data-driven discussion of some of the main talking points”.

Do 50% go to university?

Tackling one of the most common claims that 50% of British young people go to university, he said: “Over 40% certainly do”, and suggested that over time, as more adults go into higher education, it was likely that there “has already been a cohort of young people” who over their lifetime will experience higher education – but that’s not the same as saying half of 18-year-olds go straight to university.

Looking at another key question: ‘Are there too many graduates?’, Ball said: “Data makes it very hard to unequivocally state that too many people go to university to meet demand for degrees.”

He continued: “The number of jobs for which graduates are suitable, and the number of graduates available seem reasonably well matched at present – and there are both appreciable shortages of graduates in some fields, and obvious areas of graduate underemployment in others. The UK is not unusual in any of these respects.”

Mismatch between graduate skills and employer needs

He said too much energy was spent debating what a ‘graduate job’ is and added: “It’s a constantly moving target. Is a job for which a degree is appropriate, but for which there are other routes into it, a ‘graduate job’?

“If we can come to a better understanding of how graduate demand genuinely works, we can start to unpick the riddles of mismatch between graduate skills and employer needs. And we could build a more effective employment structure for those who enter higher education.”

The report received a warm welcome from the higher education sector, with many UK universities and stakeholders turning to social media outlets using the #GettingResults hashtag to celebrate the findings.

The University of Hull, for instance, used its @UniOfHull Twitter account to say: “There are lots of misperceptions surrounding the jobs market for graduates in the UK. Want to know what the actual situation is? Check out this myth-busting report,” and added a spoiler alert: “It’s actually very positive!”

James Flynn, a higher education policy analyst and policy officer with the Young Fabians Education Network, tweeted: “Most striking to me is the finding that 54% of graduates stay local to the institution they study at – and 42% were local to begin with! If you want to solve brain drain and level up left behind areas, open a university.”

Significant graduate demand

This theme was taken up in the official response from Universities UK President Professor Steve West, who said: “Despite some questioning the value of graduate skills, this report shows that employer demand for UK graduates is significant – it has increased year-on-year and is likely to grow in the future.

“A highly skilled workforce is essential to levelling up and creating economic and social prosperity everywhere in the UK. It is important that the UK government develops the right conditions for universities to fully support business growth and skills development for learners of all ages.

“To be clear, this means that the UK government must invest in a sustainable long-term funding solution for higher education.”

Alex Hall-Chen, senior policy advisor at the Institute of Directors, said: “Demand for graduate skills among employers remains strong – particularly in transferable employability skills such as critical thinking, communication and leadership – and the higher education sector will be an essential component in meeting the UK’s rapidly changing skills needs.”

Note of caution on graduate employability

But amidst all the celebrations, a note of caution came from a specialist on global graduate employability.

Louise Nicol, founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, described the report as “a nifty bit of lobbying by UUK” and told University World News: “There is not ‘strong demand for graduates’ but a strong demand for individuals with skills required by employers to increase productivity.”

Nicol said an increasing number of employers worldwide are dropping degree requirements and abandoning graduate recruitment schemes in favour of just-in-time recruitment and told University World News: “There may be many ‘graduate vacancies’ but there are still many unemployable graduates.”

She claimed that the overseas picture is not dissimilar, with an increasing number of university places in the Global South but “skills shortages remain and there are still high levels of graduate unemployment”.

She cited the example of an online retailer in Malaysia who is applying for over 300 work visas to bring skilled workers into Malaysia from overseas, particularly in IT fields, as universities are not delivering the skills they are looking for at the present time.

“The employability landscape is changing globally; unfortunately careers, information, advice and guidance (CIAG) within universities has changed little since I attended university 20 years ago.

“Whilst the report may give UUK a warm feeling inside, they may be better addressing with their members why it is that nine times more is spent by universities on marketing to get students into university than on their CIAG.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.