Each week* I will be tackling a common myth about university, graduates and the labour market and showing the data and research surrounding them so you can judge how valid those statements are. I started with the big one – that there are too many people getting degrees.
Next up, a related myth – that ‘everyone gets a degree nowadays’.
*may not be, strictly speaking, one post every week.
I took this particular myth on as part of my original series in 2012 and it will come as no surprise to hear that despite my hard-hitting critique, people still say it, and that I’m essentially going to use the same data, updated, to make the same point. And that point is: Most people in the UK have not been to university and will never go to university.
It’s actually not as straightforward as it might seem to work out how many people in the UK have been to university, but we’ll use one of the simplest. Let’s take a look at the level of highest qualification of the population by age group, using the Annual Population Survey from the ONS, which you can access, for free, through NOMIS.
Not only does the population as a whole not have a majority of people with degrees (in 2015, 36.9% of the working age population had a degree or equivalent), but there’s no age group where a majority of the population has a degree. By the end of 2015, APS data showed that 15,022,900 people in the UK had a degree or equivalent population – a lot, but not ‘everyone’.
As we saw in the last post, the proportion of the employed with a degree is higher, and it is rising, but still not even a majority, let alone ‘everyone’.
Because people with degrees are much more likely to be in work than people without them, the proportion of workers with degrees is higher than those in the population at large and rising rapidly. But it’s still not a majority. It may be that a majority of the working population in the UK holds a degree or equivalent within the next decade, but what is likely to prompt that is continuing loss of options for people below degree level.
So where does this myth about everyone holding a degree come from? Well, it’s our old friend Class. Class is part of the root of a lot of these myths, funnily enough.
Here is a table of the proportion of the population of various UK urban areas with a degree by age, again from the Annual Population Survey.
|% with NVQ4+ – aged 25-29||% with NVQ4+ – aged 30-39||% with NVQ4+ – aged 40-49||% with NVQ4+ – aged 50-64|
|Brighton and Hove||46||57.5||59.7||54.1|
|Burton upon Trent||n/a||41.1||30.5||31.6|
|Kingston upon Hull||23.2||32.6||23.3||24.9|
|Newcastle upon Tyne||56.7||51.3||42.8||28.7|
(n/a simply means there isn’t enough data for that particular cohort as the population size, or number of degree holders, is too small).
As we can see, if you’re from certain affluent, highly-professionalised parts of the country – Cheltenham, say, or St Albans – then most of the people around you have been to university. These regions commonly either have a lot of professional jobs, or are commuter towns for places (usually London) that do.
And, of course, if you’re in one of those parts of the country where a lot of university-educated professionals live, and you’re young, and your parents went to university, and you go to school somewhere with a lot of children of professional parents, pretty much everyone you meet has gone to university and expects their children to go to university.
So when people say ‘everyone goes to university’, what they mean is ‘everyone like me goes to university’. And, for the children of graduates living in relatively affluent parts of the country, that is, by and large, true. Almost everyone like them does go to university. But most people are not like them, and most people in the UK do not and will never go to university.
And this is a very important point to consider when we in the sector wonder why the rest of the population doesn’t share our viewpoints or priorities – university is a minority sport and it is likely to remain so. And that means in order to get what we want, we need to convince people who haven’t been to university and are never likely to go, that what we want is good for them.