Knowledge Without Application

21/08/2012 17:21 BST | Updated 21/10/2012 10:12 BST

Thousands of young people across the UK recently received their A-level results. While many earned their university place of choice, the rest face a frantic scramble for a place in clearing, or the disappointment of re-sits.

Over the last three decades, it has been cross-party policy to massively expand student numbers. The aim was to provide the UK labour market with a much greater supply of highly-skilled, graduate workers.

Like many of my generation, I was the first person in my family to go to university. It was 1985, and there were 47 universities in the UK with 282,960 students, producing around 80,000 graduates a year.

In just 25 years higher education has turned from a privilege available to a few into a right of passage for the masses.

Today, there are 1.5 million undergraduates and umpteen new universities in the UK. I've no wish to see a return to the dark days when only a tiny minority had access to university. But given that a university education has never been more expensive, nor graduate unemployment as high, it's reasonable to question this expansion.

The debate tends to focus upon whether there has been a decline in standards. However, the matter of whether a degree handed out in 1980 has the same intrinsic value as the 2012 equivalent is a red herring. The salient issues are simply supply and demand - are we supplying the right number of graduates for the labour market? And of appropriateness - are we producing the right kinds to meet the needs of the labour market?

When we compare the number of graduates, we find we are in fact creating far, far more than our economy needs - for every seven graduates, there is just one graduate job. This is not linked to the crash of 2008. Before then, the supply of graduates in the UK was growing seven times faster than demand.

To answer the question of the appropriateness of our graduates is a little more complicated. Here we need to look at the skills gaps: for example, have prospective doctors been trained to treat patients effectively, or are would-be plumbers able to fit bathrooms competently?

In many sectors, skills gaps are the biggest concern for human resource managers and business owners looking to hire competent employees. Finding people with a degree is easy; finding graduates with employability or job readiness skills that help them fit into, and remain in, the work environment is a big problem.

This double whammy of over-supply and under-skilling is worth considering, because it looks very much like we've spent billions of pounds training young people for jobs that don't exist and leaving them poorly equipped for those that do in the process.

How has this happened?

One of the major social changes of the last 30 years is that people measure success in terms of rather than material possessions. The status symbols of the 20th Century - cars, homes, foreign holidays, colour televisions - are ubiquitous. Comforts and luxuries are no longer regarded as rewards or occasional treats but as the norm, especially for the young. When you can already have Everything Now, what you want, more than anything else, is an interesting life.

One of the most desired fields is the creative industries. In 2010 the sector accounted for eight percent of the UK total -some £92 billion - employed around six million people. Precisely because of this, the number of candidates is vastly greater than the number of jobs available; often by a factor of several hundred to one. But this has always been the case.

Twenty-five years ago, there were no obvious routes into the sector via education, so the best advice for candidates was to try and obtain a good degree and support it with as much relevant experience as possible.

Today, people with a similar desire to work in the creative industries have the opportunity to study a range of specialist degrees. Journalism, Advertising, Film Studies, Design, Video Games, PR, Marketing, Television Studies and many others are on offer. Despite this, the advice to candidates from employers in the sector remains the same as it was in Eighties.

The irony is that while it is very difficult to get a job in the creative sector, it's usually very easy to gain a place on a related course. There are 52 universities offering degrees in Film Studies; 37 offering Cultural Studies and 66 offering Television Studies. There are currently a staggering 141 video games related courses on offer in the UK.

The choice to select a pseudo-vocational degree, with no real prospects of a job at all at the end of it, is really no choice at all.

From the students' perspective, this seems counter-intuitive. If someone wants to be an architect they need to study architecture, if someone wants to be a doctor they need to study medicine, so surely it must follow that if you want to be a video games designer, then you need to get yourself a degree in video games?

Unfortunately, not so.

Let's be clear: there is nothing wrong with undertaking a degree in PR, Media Studies, Video Games or any other subject if that's what people want to study. Nor does any of this mean that if you study one of these degrees then you won't be able to get a job in your chosen field.

The fundamental issue here is that these degrees do not necessarily lead to a job in the sector. Moreover, many employers feel that they don't provide training for the real jobs that are available either.

Meanwhile, sectors such as engineering continue to struggle to attract qualified young people. This lack of expertise has implications for us all. We currently have enough trained nuclear physicists to decommission the existing nuclear power stations, but not enough to design and build new ones as well.

Meanwhile students with the potential to fill these roles are studying subjects that definitely won't lead to a career in the field.

In 2009 there were 5,664 people studying forensic science, made popular through TV shows like CSI, but only 5,000 people in total working in the UK forensic science industry.

Historically, degrees themselves have never really provided specific training, rather giving students a grounding in the deep analytical thinking and developing intellectual competence.

It might not be the universities' fault, after all they were told to supply more graduates, but it is a scandal that so many young people are being hoodwinked into studying for expensive degrees thinking these qualifications are the key to a dream career.

Today we will find thousands of graduates working in shops, bars, restaurants and call centres. While there's nothing wrong with those jobs, you certainly don't require an expensive degree to do them: a realisation that will resonate with the legions of college leavers now having to reign in their expectations.

You can read more about this issue in Everything Now, written by Steve McKevitt and published by Route Publishing, priced £8.99.

Download the podcast A Drink with Steve McKevitt

Or visit Steve McKevitt's blog Everything Now Book