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Firms cast doubt on value of degree amid squeeze on university places

Survey shows more than 400 UK employers would hire a school-leaver with two years’ work experience over a graduate

A poll of employers has revealed a surprising degree of scepticism about the value of a degree. The finding may encourage students who miss the A-level grades they need for university on Thursday to abandon the idea of re-applying next year.

The majority of the more than 400 UK firms surveyed said they would hire a school-leaver with two years’ work experience over a graduate. Two-thirds of firms said so. This rose to almost three-quarters when just businesses that employ 50 people or fewer were surveyed.

The finding came as research commissioned by Labour from the House of Commons library showed that the thousands of students who are set to miss out on a place at university when A-level results are published on Thursday face paying an average of £15,000 extra if they reapply next year when higher fees come in.

Up to 100,000 students with good grades are likely to miss out on a university place this year, amid fierce competition. According to the research, around 40% are expected to reapply next year, when they will face higher fees. Competition for places will be intense. The number of applicants to UK universities has risen to 673,570, a record high and a rise of 1.3% on last year. There were around 487,000 undergraduates accepted at UK universities last year, and a similar number of places this year.

The squeeze on places has led to greater scrutiny of alternatives to higher education, including company training programmes that accept school-leavers.

Andrew Cook, country general manager for recruitment consultancy Kelly Services, said the findings of the business survey revealed that “formal education was less important than work experience”.

All the managers and directors quizzed for the poll, commissioned by the bank Santander, were involved in recruiting new staff. The firms came from diverse sectors, including IT, manufacturing, education and financial services.

Some 60% of the businesses said it would make no difference whether a job applicant had a degree.

However, just 12% said school-leavers had the same aptitude for learning new skills as graduates, while 58% thought graduates would be quicker learners.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the umbrella group for vice-chancellors Universities UK, urged teenagers to remember that, on average, graduates earn “considerably more” than non-graduates over their working lives. Graduates were more likely to be employed than non-graduates.

“It is also important to remember that the job market is changing,” she said. “The Confederation of British Industry predicted earlier this year that by 2017, 56% more jobs will require people to hold graduate-level qualifications. A university education does not just increase your chances of getting a job on leaving university, but also provides you with skills for life.”

The shadow business secretary, John Denham, said the extra cost of university for young people who miss out this year “shows the devastating price the Tory-led government is forcing on those students who will have to wait another year”.

A senior source in the Department for Business said the coalition was maintaining the extra 10,000 undergraduate places at English universities it provided last year.

The source said: “There will be more generous financial support, such as higher maintenance grants and more fee waivers. Repayments will be lower too, meaning graduates will typically have over £300 a year more disposable income.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds