Market Trends: The HECSU journal. Latest edition: Spring 2012. In the latest edition of GMT Alan Milburn, the Coalition government's Independent Reviewer of Social Mobility and Child Poverty, discusses how higher education can contribute to social mobility, while Dr Tessa Stone, Chair of the Bridge Group and CEO of the Brightside Trust, explores what universities can do to improve social mobility. Other contributors include: Matt Grist, senior researcher for Demos, who examines how changes to funding policy might lead to a more sustainable model of higher education; Holly Higgins, senior researcher for HECSU, who explores why some graduates attach more value to their higher education than others; and Daria Luchinskaya, PhD student at the University of Warwick, who describes how graduates utilise their skills in small businesses. View the the digital version of GMT Spring 2012.
Why do some graduates believe university is a waste of time (pp.12-14)
Holly Higgins, senior researcher at HECSU, asks what graduates’ reflections on the benefits of higher education can tell us about their understanding of the relationship between higher education and employment.

The UK’s Coalition government is currently implementing a series of reforms which signify a ‘radical departure from the existing way in which HEIs are funded’ (BIS, 2011; Browne 2010: 3). The government’s proposals, which will see publicly funded teaching grants replaced by repayable tuition loans, have reignited public debate about the purpose and practice of higher education (Anyangwe, 2011; Collini, 2011; Swain, 2011).
Public debate about the benefits of participating in higher education is currently dominated by a discourse of employability which privileges the financial rewards of achieving a higher education qualification, demonstrated by the so-called ‘graduate premium’ (Willetts, 2011), over the personal and social rewards associated with the experience itself. Critics of this employability discourse argue that attempts to isolate preparation for employment from other aspects of personal and social development are unhelpful, because they fail to take account of the interrelationship between personal, educational and professional development (McArthur, 2011).
In 2011 HECSU conducted a survey to examine graduates’ experiences of the world of work. The Real Prospects survey was conducted in 2011 which asked employed and self-employed graduates to share their experiences of the world of work. The survey, which explored graduates’ experiences of higher education, work experience and graduate employment, asked participants if they felt they had benefited from participating in higher education. We found that graduates who believed their participation in higher education had contributed to their personal and professional development demonstrated an awareness of the broader purposes of higher education, while graduates who perceived their higher education to be of little or no value were more likely to view university as a means to an end.
‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experiences and knowledge I gained from my time at university’

Graduates who felt that participating in higher education had contributed to their personal development explained how studying for a degree had enabled them to develop confidence in their own ability, giving them the courage to volunteer and defend their own ideas, and to challenge the opinions of others. They described how attending university had given them the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, people they might not otherwise have met, explaining how this prompted them to re-assess their priorities and think more critically about their own ideas and ambitions, broadening their horizons and developing their understanding of the world.
Graduates who felt that studying for a degree had facilitated their professional development also referred to the social and intellectual rewards of higher education, describing how their experience at university had given them confidence in their ability to make sense of new ideas and unfamiliar concepts, and to understand, manage, and summarise complex information. They explained how studying for a degree taught them how to appraise other peoples’ work, assess the validity of their conclusions, consider the implications of their suggestions, and then apply their own knowledge in order to come to their own conclusions. Graduates also indicated that participating in higher education had prompted them to adopt some of the behaviours associated with career selfmanagement (King, 2004), describing how studying for a degree taught them to evaluate their skills and knowledge, which helped them to identify their strengths and address their weaknesses.
These graduates felt that achieving a degree demonstrated that a student had the intellectual ability to engage with, and understand, unfamiliar concepts and ideas. They were determined to achieve success within the labour market, and encouraged current students to make the most of opportunities to engage with academic knowledge, gain work experience, participate in extracurricular activities, and develop their social skills.
‘I do not feel my degree benefited me at all. I thought it was a waste of time’

While many graduates agreed that participating in higher education had contributed to their personal and professional development, some argued that their higher education was of little or no value because it had not enabled them to secure a particular kind of job. These graduates had struggled to find what they considered to be a ‘graduate’ job and felt that universities were no better at equipping students with transferable skills than schools or colleges. These graduates felt that achieving a degree demonstrated that a student had acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to perform a particular role, but were pessimistic about their chances of achieving success within the labour market, arguing that nepotism was rife and that they did not have the contacts to secure a job in their subject area. They believed that many students would be better off pursuing professional or vocational qualifications which are designed to prepare them for employment, and wished they had done the same.
‘Don’t think it’s just about what employers want. University is a great opportunity to learn what you can do as an individual’

Graduates were asked to reflect on their experience of higher education as part of a wider survey about career development, so it was inevitable that many would focus on the role higher education played in preparing them for employment. However, it is interesting to note that those who were positive about their experience described how their higher education had contributed to their personal and professional development, while those who expressed negative views perceived their higher education to be of less value because they hadn’t been able to secure a particular kind of job.
Students’ orientations towards higher education are important because they influence their understanding of, engagement with, and ambitions for academic learning, extracurricular activities, employment and employability (Stevenson and Clegg, 2011; Haywood et al, 2010; Tomlinson, 2010; Beaty et al, 2005). They also inform students’ understanding of the relationship between education and the wider world, and the current discourse of employability is prompting some to view higher education primarily as a way of distinguishing themselves from others in an increasingly competitive labour market (Brookes and Everett, 2009). This should be of concern to both politicians and educators because it suggests that the discourse of employability is leading some students to adopt an instrumental approach to education, preventing them from engaging with higher education in a way which facilitates the personal and social development which will enable them to secure fulfilling employment and make a meaningful contribution to the economy.
Further research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between student’s orientations towards higher education and their educational and employment outcomes, but the preliminary findings from the HECSU survey are a timely reminder that universities and policy makers need to do more to remind students of the broader purposes of higher education if they want students to participate fully in university life.
More about the Real Prospects research programme

HECSU’s Real Prospects research and development programme explores the process of higher education and employability in order to understand how universities and graduate employers can better support their students and graduate employees. To find out more about the research programme, please visit
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