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How should we respond to reports of a declining graduate premium?

  • 3 August 2018

HEPI has occasionally published hard-to-find and interesting historic educational documents, such as Anthony Crosland’s 1965 Woolwich speech heralding polytechnics and Ken Baker’s Lancaster speech extolling the virtues of expanding higher education.

Another important but often overlooked historical document is the expansionary education white paper of 1972. It includes a section that relates to today’s discussions about the purposes of higher education and declining graduate premium.

116. The subsequent career patterns of some of those taking degrees or parallel higher education qualifications in future, for example, must be expected to differ significantly from those of their predecessors. The expansion of higher education provision has already reached the point where employers’ requirements for such highly qualified people in the forms of employment they traditionally enter are, in the aggregate, largely being met. These patterns of employment are already changing and will continue to change as employers increasingly take the opportunity to enlarge the areas of work in which more highly educated and qualified recruits can be placed advantageously. Even so, there seems little doubt that the continuing expansion of higher education will more than match the likely expansion of graduate employment opportunities as these are understood today.

117. Opportunities for higher education are not however to be determined primarily by reference to broad estimates of the country’s future need for highly qualified people; although attempts to relate supply to likely demand in certain specialised professions – and, particularly, at the postgraduate stage – will be no less important than before. The Government consider higher education valuable for its contribution to the personal development of those who pursue it; at the same time they value its continued expansion as an investment in the nation’s human talent in a time of rapid social change and technological development. If these economic, personal and social aims are to be realised within the limits of available resources and competing priorities, both the purposes and the nature of higher education, in all its diversity, must be critically and realistically examined. The continuously changing relationship between higher education and subsequent employment should be reflected both in the institutions’ and in individuals’ choices. The Government hope that those who contemplate entering higher education – and those advising them – will the more carefully examine their motives and their requirements; and be sure that they form their judgment on a realistic assessment of its usefulness to their interests and career intentions.

Who, you may ask, was the Secretary of State responsible for this enlightened and liberal account of the benefits of higher education, which so contrasts with later comments about human capital formation? Margaret Thatcher.

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