The European Union publishes an annual report entitled Key Data on Education in Europe. In the 2012 issue there is some interesting statistical analysis of the structure and nature of Europe’s education systems. For me, one finding suggested in the report rather stands out:
‘… A growing number of young people appear to be overqualified for the type of employment they find. This suggests the need for more efficient forecasting of the short- and long-term needs of the labour market with a view to providing reliable educational and careers guidance to students so that improvements can be made in matching young people’s educational qualifications with actual employment opportunities.’
At first sight it is not easy to see the basis for this conclusion in the data recorded, but it appears to rest on the finding that, across Europe, up to 40 per cent or so of graduates find work as technicians, clerks, craft workers or machine operators – the assumption being that none of these jobs require higher education degrees. In other words, it is assumed that the graduates working in them do so because they could not find employment more suitable to their qualifications.
Of course in a recession graduates, like others, will find it more difficult to secure employment, and some will opt for non-ideal jobs that will at least give them an income. But the same report also finds that graduates find work ‘two times faster’ than non-graduates.
In many countries it has been public policy for a while to increase participation in higher education, and to upgrade educational qualifications across the population. It would be highly reckless to suggest now that this has been a mistake. In fact, much more analysis would have to be done before anyone could conclude that people are leaving higher education with qualifications beyond their needs. The European report suggests that maybe students are choosing the wrong subjects, and there is some evidence to support that contention: we know for example that there are significant vacancies in the information technology sector that, even now, cannot be filled with appropriately qualified graduates. On the other hand the evidence still is that all graduates are more likely to find a job quickly.
Careers guidance and the careful selection of programmes of study is always desirable, but in the end there is still little evidence that a university education, of whatever kind, does anything other than support labour market success. Public policy should continue to recognise this.