Who'll fix the leak of graduates?

Proportionately fewer Scottish school-leavers are going on to higher education than five years ago - 5 per cent fewer, to be precise. When the figure first dipped below the magic 50 per cent participation rate, it was dismissed as a "blip". Five years on, however, it looks like a trend.

One answer may be that the drip, drip, drip of stories about shortages of plumbers - along with tales that the few that exist earn circa pound;80,000 - has persuaded scores of youngsters to abandon thoughts of engineering degrees in favour of heating engineering diplomas and a Corgi certificate. The real answer is likely to be more complicated than that.

Employment is relatively high and leavers are finding it easier to walk straight out through the school gates into paid employment. We must also not make make the mistake of assuming from these latest figures that opting for vocational or sub-degree routes is somehow a sign of failure.

The universities and colleges are worried, however - and they suggest that the Scottish Executive should share their concern. Recent surveys, they say, show that graduate salaries are rising, as are graduate vacancies. At the same time, other European countries have a higher proportion of graduate-level workers in employment. When he launched the executive's Futures Project earlier this year in Stirling, Jack McConnell said: "It's clear that learning must be at the heart of our efforts to enhance our competitive advantage over the next 20 years and beyond."

If he is to fulfil that vision, then much more will have to be done to put young people from non-traditional backgrounds on to the path of lifelong learning, whether that is in college or university. And once they have taken those first steps, more must be done to support them. The non-continuation rates averaged in Scotland - with some institutions showing drop-out rates of around 30 per cent in their first year - are unacceptable.

The transition from school to university can be difficult - as is recognised even by some fee-paying schools which are now taking radical measures to prepare their senior pupils for university, where they have to fend for themselves and study unsupported.

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