The numbers game in HE

I promised in the last entry to say more about grade inflation, so I’ve been thinking about some of the possible links between the themes of skills, grade inflation, diversity, and student numbers that kept popping up in last year’s blog. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for a particularly cheering entry with which to begin 2009!

The economic downturn is likely, I suspect, to uncover a few cracks in current thinking about skills, credentials and the knowledge economy.

Firstly, an obvious consequence of the increased supply of graduates since the early 90’s has been that employers, particularly those offering the tastier morsels of employment, have seen a steady increase in supply, to which they have responded by raising the entry hurdles – hence the increasing sense that a 2:i is the sine qua non for a decent graduate-entry job. That this is happening is itself a big clue to a potential problem with the system.   The market value of a degree depends on an element of scarcity. In other words, if 50% of potential employees have an undergraduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace as compared with the time when only 20% of applicants had one. This is surely part of the dynamic that underlies the pressure for degree inflation – graduate numbers have increased, and employability has become an increasingly important success measure for institutions. In this context, looking at it rather cynically, perhaps, if it is in the (perceived) interests of both students and institutions to graduate more students with high honours,  we should hardly be surprised if there is upward pressure – and indeed movement – on grades. Of course the whole grade inflation issue is, as I’ve intimated before, more complex than that, but it is – at the least – one of the plausible factors in what seems to be going on. As the market for jobs gets tighter, it is unlikely that these sorts of pressures will reduce.

There is also a rather large elephant in the room as regards the whole expansion of HE, which is the assumption that there will be continuing growth in demand for graduates by employers. The Confederation of British Industry in The Guardian on 17 Sept 2008, cast its doubts on that one. It takes the view that universities are producing too many graduates already, stating that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK chasing 9 million graduate jobs. And that was before the recession really started to bite. Yesterday’s Guardian, on its front page, made the point that 18-24 year olds seem to be “bearing the brunt” of the downturn. It quotes the latest labour market prediction, that by the end of 2009, we will see unemployment reach three million, with 40% of those ‘on the dole’ under 25. Of course, by no means all of those will be graduates, but graduate opportunities for 2009 are clearly already substantially reduced, and the same piece in the Guardian suggests the big recruiters are narrowing their sights even more firmly on recruiting from the elite universities of Oxbridge and the top London colleges; so another backward step for diversity there.

Logically, one might say some contraction in HE therefore would make sense, though that would not be a comfortable option for those of us who tend to see a university education as a social rather than primarily economic good. But this is, in any event, unlikely to happen, unless so dictated by market forces, and demand for HE has tended, I think, to operate relatively independently of trends in employment.  The latest projections from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on recruitment to UK higher education suggest that, overall, demand for higher education is likely to remain strong to 2029.  In this context we are likely to see  greater indebtedness, and maybe a decline in the (perceived, but actually difficult to prove) earnings premium that graduateness is supposed to attract, and probably still greater pressure on universities to link higher education to employability.

My wish for us all for 2009 and beyond? May we not live in such interesting times!


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