Graduates are in demand again and students with vocational qualifications are getting into university, but the grants on offer may be a deterrent to prospective undergraduates.
The news that for the first time in five years demand for graduates has outstripped supply should lend weight to the argument that the massive expansion of higher education should continue.
The survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that anticipated vacancies for 1995 were 17.5 per cent higher than last year. Average starting salaries for graduates are also rising faster than the average for non-manual workers, said the AGR's executive secretary Roly Cockman. (The average wage for a newly-qualified graduate is around Pounds 14,000, though many firms are paying Pounds 20,000-plus to attract the right people.) However, employers are saying that while the intellectual calibre of graduates is usually adequate, they frequently lack the ability to communicate effectively, manage time and fit quickly into the culture of the organisation. "The days of leisurely three-year graduate training schemes are long gone," said Mr Cockman. "Now they have to jump in and start running."
Predictably employers say they want universities to include more work experience in their courses, but what do aspiring students want?
This year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, no fewer than 32,862 people applied to do media studies courses, an increase of 54.5 per cent on last year. This compares with the mere 2,042 who want to be electrical engineers, for instance. Even considering that many of the media course applications will be unsuccessful, does Britain really need thousands more would-be journalists on the job market in 1998?
Media studies has received a bad press both from academics in more traditional disciplines who question the intellectual rigour of the course and from tutors of purely vocational journalism courses who argue that they offer journalistic training more quickly and cheaply.
But people working in HE funding and careers services say that this is not the point. "One of the strengths of the British system," said Bernard Kingston, former president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, "is that a good third of vacancies for graduates are for graduates of any discipline, unlike in many parts of Europe where if you qualify in a particular discipline you are expected to work in it. The shift in the economy towards the commerce and service sector has thrown up greater demand for graduates of any discipline." In other words, a humanities degree is just a degree in employment terms, whether in media studies or history.
Nor is there is any national supervisory body that forecasts Britain's economic needs and tries to tailor the supply of graduates in particular disciplines accordingly. Graham Davies, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, said that apart from medicine and initial teacher training, which set student quotas, "everything else in the system is left to market forces".
The HEFC will sometimes be asked by the Department for Education to encourage institutions to expand in certain areas, as it has for continuing education this year, but "there's no master plan," said Mr Davies, "and where such schemes have been tried they have failed."