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Scots need to be better educated

More graduates are needed to improve the economy, not people with 'sub-degrees' saturating the market. Neil Munro reports

Vocational education and training has been seriously roughed up in a hard-hitting report issued today by Universities Scotland, which calls for a fundamental change in the Government's economic strategy.

In a string of robust comments which will alienate the FE sector, it declares that "there are no skills shortages" in Scotland - the basis of policy on skills development and further education by all governments. As the lobbying arm of the universities, it suggests a better return would come from stepping up investment in turning out more graduates.

What WasWhat Next? comprehensively puts the boot into the notion that Scotland has a highly-educated workforce. This is the raison d'etre of the drive by Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council to improve "skills utilisation" - the gap between high qualifications and poor productivity

But Universities Scotland states that, if Higher National qualifications are taken out of the equation, the proportion of the Scottish workforce holding a university degree - around 20 per cent - is almost exactly the same as the UK, and the UK is below the European Union and OECD averages.

The report continues: "Scotland appears to be saturated with 'vocational skills' and when an independent study of UK skill levels was commissioned by Skills for Business and published in 2008, it concluded that investment in vocational qualifications in Scotland 'could perhaps be usefully shifted towards producing relatively more academic qualifications'. And far from suggesting an over-supply of graduates there is evidence of under-supply. The fact that public discourse is so dislocated from the evidence is worrying."

This evidence is based on the 2008 Education At A Glance report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which suggested that "new jobs will be at graduate level or above". There had been a rise in the skilled populations of almost all OECD countries between 1998 and 2006, from 37 per cent of the total workforce to 42 per cent in the UK.

This leads Universities Scotland to take a tilt at one of the most cherished jewels in the qualifications crown - the Higher National Diploma, regarded as a degree-equivalent award which has boosted the Scottish figures for the number of 17-year-olds in higher education (46.9 per cent in total, but only 27.8 per cent on degree courses).

The universities' report says the jobs market is "saturated" with those who have these "sub-degree" qualifications; as a result, they earn less or cannot find a job. Female graduates get a return on their qualification twice that of someone with a sub-degree, and male graduates can expect two-and-a-half times more.

The report also claims to have unearthed evidence that Scottish men with an HND (vocational level 4) are more likely to be unemployed than if they had not undertaken the qualification, and would be "marginally more employable" one level down (HigherAdvanced HigherHigher National Certificate).

It continues: "The blanket assumption that vocational education must be good for the economy is simply not sustained by the labour market or wage premium evidence."

Other findings from What WasWhat Next?

Efforts to help the group who are not in education, employment or training, the cornerstone of government and business policy, are dismissed as "tokenism" in the report. "It is economically incorrect to think that 'any' education will result in economic benefits," it states. "If we take some-one with no qualifications and provide them with a qualification not in demand, we will fail them twice by failing to get them into employment and alienating them from further study... Tokenism will be counter-productive."

The report also takes issue with the deal struck between Labour and the SNP in last week's budget to increase the number of apprenticeships by 7,800, at a cost of Pounds 16 million. "More apprenticeships could only be predicated on increased demand from the construction sector, the opposite of what is likely to happen in the medium and long term."

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