Myths about the graduate labour market – Number 2: Everyone goes to university nowadays

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.

Proportion of UK working age population with degree or equivalent (NVQ4+) by year and age group
Proportion of UK working age population with degree or equivalent (NVQ4+) by year and age group. Data comes from Annual Population Survey, analysed using 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’.

Qualification levels of UK workers 2004 to 2015
Qualification levels of the UK workforce from 2004 to 2015

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
Barnsley 22.9 27.3 29.7 15.7
Basildon 39.1 23.7 23.6 27.9
Basingstoke 33 57.1 43.1 19.7
Bath 66.4 67.4 66.9 56.9
Bedford 43.5 47.9 47.9 31
Birkenhead n/a 25 27.7 22.6
Birmingham 45.3 39.9 32.2 21.3
Blackburn 38.8 25.8 35.2 19.8
Blackpool 24.7 28.6 23.7 22
Bolton 32.2 34.5 33.8 36.7
Bournemouth 51.1 49.2 42.7 28.8
Bracknell 47.7 45.3 43.2 34.3
Bradford 25.1 21 25.7 13.6
Brighton and Hove 46 57.5 59.7 54.1
Bristol 60.4 61.7 50.4 40.6
Burnley n/a 38.1 24.8 17.3
Burton upon Trent n/a 41.1 30.5 31.6
Bury 58 41.9 32.8 32.8
Cambridge 72.1 76.9 71 69.2
Cardiff 53.1 57.5 50.6 38.6
Carlisle 58.4 26.8 31.2 27.8
Chatham 21.7 40.4 26.8 11.9
Chelmsford 53.3 38.1 37.7 37.5
Cheltenham 61.7 65.7 61.6 52
Chester 50.6 45.4 62.9 42.3
Chesterfield 36.3 45.6 27.3 33.2
Colchester 33.3 48.9 40 19.6
Coventry 28.8 42.7 32.8 28
Crawley 48 43.8 37.3 20.1
Darlington 35.8 34.4 36.3 30.2
Derby 47.2 44.3 35.8 26.2
Doncaster 37.1 42.2 27 24.4
Dudley 39.5 25.5 21.9 11
Eastbourne 49.5 54.1 45.1 33
Exeter 49.5 55.2 58 32.3
Gateshead 48.3 36.6 29.7 18.9
Gillingham 25.4 31.7 30.5 24.5
Gloucester 47.7 38.8 40.4 36.8
Grimsby 23.6 21.7 20.9 20.8
Guildford 75.2 54 59.7 35.4
Halifax 28 30.5 35.1 23.6
Harlow n/a 12 32.7 29.5
Harrogate 29.6 20.9 56.3 48.8
Hartlepool 28.1 34.1 26.7 20.9
Hastings 41.3 21.8 24.5 33.3
Hemel Hempstead 40.4 43.1 34.7 28.5
High Wycombe 75.7 55 54.9 50.7
Huddersfield 50.5 46.6 36.9 39.3
Ipswich 26 31.7 26.4 18.7
Kingston upon Hull 23.2 32.6 23.3 24.9
Leeds 39.7 46.2 34.2 27.3
Leicester 40.4 36.1 30 33.4
Lincoln 26.5 18 31.3 26
Liverpool 43.8 38 32.9 23
London 64.5 61 52.4 42.3
Luton 40.8 36.5 37 26.5
Maidstone 28 41.6 36.3 32.3
Manchester 52.7 58.9 45.6 33.3
Mansfield 47.7 16.2 36.6 25.8
Middlesbrough 32.2 33.6 27.2 25
Milton Keynes 52.6 44.9 36.5 36.5
Newcastle upon Tyne 56.7 51.3 42.8 28.7
Newcastle-under-Lyme n/a 31.8 40.5 39.5
Newport 47.6 46.6 27.4 30.3
Northampton 44.2 43.8 25.2 23.2
Norwich 41.9 44.6 34 38.9
Nottingham 56.1 46.9 33.8 28.8
Nuneaton 28.5 38.6 25.8 39.4
Oldham 36.6 25.6 25.2 26.1
Oxford 62.5 70.1 78.4 63.9
Peterborough 27.7 33.8 30.7 23.2
Plymouth 34.6 42.4 30.3 26.6
Poole 45.6 45.1 42.5 34.5
Portsmouth 42.5 38.2 38 24.5
Preston 32.6 33.5 28.6 24.5
Reading 58.3 61 49.5 43
Redditch 27.2 36.9 21.5 30
Rochdale 34.9 42.2 22.3 20.8
Rotherham 22.3 22.1 25.5 24.5
Salford 60.5 54.3 36.7 21.6
Scunthorpe 18.9 35.1 21.6 27.9
Sheffield 48.9 44.5 40.9 41
Shrewsbury 47.6 62.1 37.1 45.8
Slough 46 49.9 40.1 27.9
Solihull 48 62.1 51.4 38.9
South Shields 25 34.6 32 20.1
Southampton 44.2 39.7 36 29.4
Southend-on-Sea 23.3 29.2 35.5 22.5
Southport 40.5 32.3 34.1 41.7
St Albans 66.5 75.9 65.6 53.6
St Helens 20.5 42.3 30.5 19.7
Stevenage 39.4 24.5 32.3 22.6
Stockport 30.5 50.3 34 30.7
Stockton-on-Tees 52.2 31.4 32 34.1
Stoke-on-Trent 43.6 30.1 25.3 19.4
Sunderland 29 35.2 24.1 22.2
Sutton Coldfield 86.8 64.4 49.4 49.5
Swansea 43.4 41.6 35.6 32.2
Swindon 31.4 37.1 29.4 25.5
Telford 17.9 32.2 34.8 31.3
Wakefield 25.9 36 29.2 24
Walsall 27.5 24 29.4 26.2
Warrington 48.5 47 44.7 34.7
Watford 35.2 48.4 42.9 35.9
West Bromwich 18.8 24.5 20.5 9.8
Weston-Super-Mare 31.3 36.6 18.8 31.6
Wigan 30.9 33.9 30.5 20
Woking 39.4 41.1 58.4 46.3
Wolverhampton 34.8 33.9 36.6 20.6
Worcester n/a 49.9 37.8 43.8
Worthing 47.7 50.2 27.4 31
York 48.7 54 43.7 42.5

(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.

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