Qualifications, overqualification, etc

We’ve had the annual  pictures of  school leavers celebrating their A level results.  As usual most of the pictures feature girls, hugging each other or jumping in the air.  This is partly because girls have as always better results to celebrate, partly because they are more likely to be seen as photogenic.  I did see one  picture of a pair of boys congratulating each other, but the hug looked like a very awkward clinch from which both would break away as quickly as they could.

The significant gender difference was quite a prominent theme amongst the comments.  Projections show us moving rapidly towards a 2:1 ratio in higher education, in favour of women.  We already have a majority of women in each graduate cohort, and the difference will only get larger.   But what kinds of job will these graduates go into?

A CIPD  report, Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market, followed soon after, and was quite  timely, even though it does not include any gender differentiation.   The authors, Ken Mayhew and Craig Holmes, patiently go through the numerous different senses in which we use terms such as over qualification or skills mismatch.  How far do graduates actually work at ‘graduate’ level?  The answer depends on whether we mean jobs that you need a degree to get, or the kind of work that you actually do in the job.  And of course this changes over time.

Mayhew and Holmes break the evidence down to quite a fine-grained level, looking at how different occupations seem to show different effects.  But their overall conclusion is quite a sceptical one:

“The simplest interpretation of this development is that HE is acting as a filtering device to identify the most able individuals and that these individuals are no more or less productive in such jobs than their mothers or fathers.”

On the Today programme, Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and a former minister of higher education, was asked for his response.  He of course has an interest in maintaining high levels of student entry.   His main point was that those with university degrees continue to have generally higher incomes;  the so-called ‘graduate premium’ is around £10K annually.   True enough.  But  the CIPD report is asking a different question.  It is not about individual benefits/returns, but about whether the system of education on the one hand and the world of work on the other are making the best use of people’s talents.  That generates some tough challenges, which go beyond simplistic questions about whether or not we expand higher education.   I’m convinced that the extent to which women and men’s skills are used differently will be an important component in such a debate;  we don’t yet have enough detailed evidence on this.

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