The Times, 9 July 2008


A few months ago, late at night on BBC 5Live, I got into an argument with someone about degree courses – we were discussing the recent publication of university drop-out rates. She pretty much accused me of intellectual snobbery, for pointing out that more people tended to drop out of less academic subjects. I argued then, and I still think now, that if you’re going to spend three years studying something, it either needs to be useful and vocational (law, medicine), or something you love and want to think about every day. Otherwise you end up with half a degree in something you aren’t interested in, and £20k worse off than you were before.

And even the ones who do stay the distance are found wanting. This week, a survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters revealed that almost a third of them would now accept someone with a 2:2, ‘to widen the talent pool’: one employer said that life skills were as important as academic ones. But 56.4% of bosses surveyed were concerned about a lack of hard skills, such as literacy, or leadership.

Now, I can quite see how someone might leave university with no leadership skills: the veterinary medics at my college were never seen in conversation with an actual person, even each other. One just glimpsed them occasionally, letting birds perch on one arm, after the fashion of Snow White. But literacy? Really? I was hoping that by the time you’d done GCSEs, A-Levels and a degree, you might have developed a passing relationship with the English language. The kind of relationship when you call when you say you will and turn up on time and mostly sober, rather than losing her number and sleeping with her sister.

55% of employers also said that a lack of soft skills was also a serious problem (before you ask, I don’t know who decides the texture of these skills. Not me, I can promise you that). They worried that graduates couldn’t communicate well, manage their own learning, solve problems or motivate themselves. In other words, not only have they got through their degrees without learning to spell, they’ve got through their degrees seemingly without doing any of the things one needs to get a degree. When did students stop managing their own learning? Isn’t that what being a student is?

Less than half of employers supported the Government target of 40% of the workforce having a degree by 2020. A third said they considered that target unrealistic and undesirable. And if they’re faced with an array of eager job applicants each year who have letters after their name but can’t construct a sentence, get out of bed, or talk to colleagues, it’s hard to disagree with them.