How many Graduates does the Country need?

I found last week’s discussion about tuition fees absolutely sterile. There was no discussion at all about the number of graduates that the country needs and in what subjects. There was no discussion about whether it was best to put money into this area rather than other parts of the education and training system. There was no discussion about what people actually get out of being a student as distinct to what happens to them when they get their degree.

So where do I stand on these questions?

Firstly – yes I am an old fashioned woolly, tree hugging liberal. I believe that education not only broadens the mind but enriches one’s life. I believe in education for education’s sake and in study for the joy of studying. However in the hard world we live in I recognise that such broadening and enriching must be paid for so I do not duck the ‘how it can be paid for’ question.

But that is not the argument that has been advanced by any of the three Parties. They argue that education is an economic matter and that the growth of our economy is dependent on an increase in the number of graduates. This notion is clearly rubbish. Look around you and see how many of the jobs that society needs must be done by graduates. The answer is that at most 25% of the jobs in society need degrees and we must ask therefore why we have been aiming to get 50% through the system.

Just look at some of the jobs that do specify degrees. I noticed recently a job which specified graduates. It was for a call centre. It is a company I know so out of interest I rang them to ask why the people needed a degree for the work. The answer was that they don’t – it was simply a way of screening out a large number of applicants to make the selection process manageable.

This is so bad for the people that have degrees and cannot get the jobs they want. For years they have been told that getting a degree is the pathway to a successful life – they leave Uni and the grim reality sets in that this was just a fairy tale.

Meanwhile in the real world we have not got enough people going to develop a wide range of skills which the Country does need. Let’s take the apocryphal story of the plumbers and the Poles. Yes we are not producing enough UK plumbers so yes – even now – we are ‘importing’ work and attitude ready Poles to do the work for us.

So if money has to be rationed where should we spend it? I am delighted with the pupil premium and the extra £430 a year (in the first year alone) that it will give for children from a deprived background. If you want to really pick the best brains of society for the good of all catching them young is what will work best. As the Jesuits made clear our life paths are set by the age of 7. Helping very young children to develop will result in more people from such backgrounds going to Oxbridge (although why that is a target for anyone baffles me) than fiddling around with entry systems at the age of 18.

We need to put more effort into skills training and apprenticeships which are far more likely to lead to good jobs than a mediocre degree from a former technical college.

We need to give far more information and advice in schools and outside schools so that young people have realistic information about what is really good for them rather than looks good in the 6th form college or school prospectus.

These are the things that will make a real difference along with greater support to those graduates who society really needs who will be able to develop their knowledge to the higher level needed by our complex society.

Ah I hear someone say, “What a hypocrite”. “He got his degree when you got a full grant and had no fees so he doesn’t care”. Wrong I am afraid. I left school and had no desire for a Uni education. My first real job was a dead end one – I went to work for the Liberal Party. I haven’t looked forward since!


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. . Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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