Value for money in terms of students studying in higher education is increasingly becoming one of the key debates in the sector. Over the past year we’ve had a National Audit Office study and the Office for Students (OfS) commissioned student research into the issue. Last week saw the government’s response to the Education Select Committee report: Value for Money in Higher Education, published in November, and of course, it forms a central part of the current post-18 education and funding review, as well as being one of the key strategic objectives of the OfS. The latest poll for the Times newspaper, the results of which were shared on the 2nd January, indicate that two thirds of adult respondents believe that university tuition fees of up to £9,250 a year provide poor value for money. What we actually mean by ‘value for money’ is another continuing debate, but in terms of students and graduates it mostly focuses on the quality of the course itself in terms of teaching and support as well as employment outcomes on graduation.
What we must not lose sight of in all this debate is what UK employers are actually telling us with regard to the graduate labour market and predicted higher level skills needs for the future. Back in November, the CBI and Pearson published their 10th Annual Education and Skills report, Educating for the Modern World. As always, it’s a fascinating and important read and in terms of the graduate labour market paints a refreshingly positive picture in the main. The report, which summarises the responses of over 28,000 UK businesses, focusing on their perceptions of the education system, highlights that nearly nine in ten (87%) of businesses that employ graduates have maintained or increased their levels of graduate recruitment over the past year. Only 13% of businesses have cut back on graduate recruitment while more than one in five (28%) increased their graduate intakes. The report states that this represents a marked rise in the positive balance of greater graduate recruitment compared with 2017 and for the sixth consecutive year, more businesses have expanded their graduate intakes than have cut back on graduate recruitment, cumulatively raising the number of graduate openings. Looking to the future, businesses expect to have more job openings for people at every skill level over the next three to five years. The biggest anticipated area of growth is at the higher end of the skills spectrum, with 79% of businesses expecting to grow their number of higher skilled employees.
With concerns raised in the sector about grade inflation, it is encouraging to see that nearly four in five businesses (79%) gave a positive reply when asked whether they still consider a 2:1 undergraduate degree to be a good measure of academic ability. What these reports clearly show time and again, however, is that employer’s value graduates aptitudes and attitudes to work as some of the most important factors when recruiting candidates and in fact topped the list of key factors in the 2017 CBI/Pearson report (followed by degree result and degree subject respectively). Of concern is that in the same report one third of employers cited their dissatisfaction with graduates attitudes and behaviours, including self-management and resilience. This would suggest that the growing emphasis on improving these attitudes and behaviours should not just be a priority for schools and colleges but for the HE sector as well. A similar level of dissatisfaction was also cited in terms of the relevance of graduate applicants work experience, which reinforces the message that students need to be equipped with both an HE qualification and, wherever possible, relevant experience of the world of work. With Brexit adding to growing fears that current skills shortages, particularly at higher levels, will only increase further, it would seem that at least in the next few years the outlook is in the main a positive one for graduates, especially those with the right behaviours, attitudes and experience.