Are there too many university graduates?

The OECD has projected there to be more than 300 million university graduates in OECD and G20 countries by 2030, with India and China accounting for around 50% of the total. Is this too much, to the point that the value of a higher education is eroding?

In one respect it’s encouraging to see that there’ll be such a high number of people passing through higher education. The United Nations has always promoted education as the “basic building block of society” and the “single best investment countries can make to build prosperous, healthy and equitable societies.” A lot of misinformation and conflict that we see in the world today can be combated by providing universal high quality education.

But what does this mean for those actually graduating from university? Are there enough jobs available? Competition is intense for graduate jobs; one of the reasons why students try to juggle so many activities along with their studies, to differentiate themselves from other applicants. Often a Bachelor degree isn’t enough and people try to get a Master degree as well to give an added boost to the resume. Or if people don’t want to go for a Master degree, choosing a very specific niche for their undergraduate major can help a lot. For example if there’s an opening for a graduate job in an art auction house, a degree in History of Art is likely to be viewed more favourably than a generic degree like Bachelor of Commerce.

University lecture

Summer holidays at university are no longer seen as a time to wind down and take a break from studies. Instead this is where students are expected to get work experience and internships so they have something of value on their CV / resumé when they apply for jobs in their senior year. Also focusing just on your studies during the academic year isn’t enough. You’re expected to be a ‘well-rounded individual’, so many students get involved in societies even if they’re not really interested, just so they can show that they have varied interests and can work well in teams.

Some students who neglect this aspect end up kicking themselves when it came time for them to apply for jobs and their resumés were fairly empty. Because there are so many graduates out there and competition is intense, you have to plan things out from the very early stages. This is also why in many instances, graduates don’t mention the syllabus that they studied as a memorable part of university, but instead the experiences that they went through during the 3 or 4 years of being on campus.

Graduates are often faced with the familiar ‘chicken and egg’ problem. Companies want to hire people who have experience, but how can people get experience in the first place if companies are unwilling to hire them? This is why internships have become very popular. At first, companies would pay a small stipend for an intern to work the same hours as regular staff. As demand for internships grew, companies started offering unpaid internships. And to demonstrate the extent to which students are now willing to get work experience, there’s a market for paid internships – not the company paying the worker, but the worker paying the company or agency to get work experience! It’s not unfamiliar to hear stories of highly qualified graduates working in entry-level positions simply because there aren’t enough graduate jobs available. When there’s one position for hundreds of qualified graduates, there’s a problem.

University students studying in library

The OECD’s projection of 300 million graduates by 2030 helps push back against certain assumptions about the lessening appeal of higher education. There is a notion that the lustre of university is waning as people finding new opportunities to make an income without the need of a degree. For example, Lego conducted a survey in 2019, asking 3,000 children in the US, UK and China what they wanted to be when they grew up. Over a third of them said they wanted to be a vlogger or YouTuber. This was the most sought after profession in the UK and the US, but in China most kids wanted to be an astronaut. Being a vlogger / YouTuber was in 5th place among Chinese kids.

So while there’s definitely an aspiration to go the non-university route, this survey was asked of children aged 8-12. It’s possible that as children grow older toward early adulthood, they realise that a career on YouTube can be unpredictable and draining. Perhaps many students consider having a degree as a worthwhile backup, reflected in the rising numbers of people going to university. Also going to university and being a YouTuber doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. There are many people who grow their channels while at university.

But while there may be 300 million university graduates in 2030, the United Nations has projected there to be 84 million children at risk of being out of school by 2030. There’s also the issue of inequality, with children from rich backgrounds having much higher school
completion rates than children from poor backgrounds. We also have to consider proportion. If the global population increases considerably from now till 2030, then the proportion of worldwide graduates to total population could actually be lower than it is now, despite the absolute figure of worldwide graduates rising to 300 million. And of course, quality of education is essential. There’s no point pumping millions of people through a system of higher education if the learning is substandard. That would just be a check-box exercise with none of the benefits the United Nations seeks to achieve.

The millions of students going through higher education is a positive sign for global society. As the United Nations says: “Education liberates the intellect, unlocks the imagination and is fundamental for self-respect. It is the key to prosperity and opens a world of opportunities.” Ensuring those opportunities are available for all is a responsibility for governments and societies worldwide.

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