UK Employers Want Fewer, Better Grads

Last Updated Mar 9, 2010 1:52 PM EST

A surprising suggestion has emerged from the Association of Graduate Recruiters' manifesto -- lift the cap on university fees to let them charge what they like. Apparently this is what employers want.

The AGR's Manifesto, "Talent Opportunity, Prosperity", calls for university fee caps (which stand at just over £3,000) to be phased out and suggests employers of graduates receive tax breaks in the UK. But the most surprising suggestion -- made on behalf of 750 employers -- is the AGR's call for universities to be allowed to charge what they like for degrees.

The argument is that this would halt the 'devaluation' of university education and drive up standards so that employers get fewer graduates with higher calibre degrees. At the moment, the pressure to get a degree is such that students are wasting their money on degrees from "below average institutions", the AGR argues. Meanwhile, employers are less sure of the value of one degree compared to another.

So what's the thinking here: if a degree education becomes more expensive, fewer but more determined people will undertake it and the overall quality of graduates will rise? "Below average" institutions will fall away and leave us with the brightest and the best universities and people? Surely the AGR cannot be suggesting that degree-level education is the privilege of the few, the bright -- and the rich.

Admittedly, the recession has left a glut of graduates in search of jobs. Its findings earlier this year, that there are some 49 grads per job vacancy in the UK, argue for some kind of action. And there's sense in a lot of what the AGR suggests -- for example, its call for the government to scrap its 50 percent entry target for universities, an obsession that leaves those without degrees at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting good jobs.

Even some fee rises are justifiable, especially in the face of public sector cuts. But with no upper limit, some universities become out of reach to all but the moneyed or those willing to take on a mountain of debt. Is that really what employers want?

Carl Gilleard, quoted in the Times Higher Education, acknowledges that the idea may be an unpopular one but is vital for "national prosperity and productivity".

What do you think?