Skills Gap: too many people are going to university



Today, more than half of 18- to 30-year-olds go into higher education, reaching a famous target set by Tony Blair 20 years previously when he was prime minister [source: Independent]. The Tony Blair Institute (a think tank set up by Blair) has published a report arguing that this number should be even higher: 70 per cent by 2040. The authors argue that the government is wrong to emphasise ‘skills’ or technical education [source: Tony Blair Institute].

But others believe the numbers are too high, with too many doing poor-value degrees. According to Sir Peter Lampl, the founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, ‘there are too many kids going to university. Too many graduates come out with a lot of debt, and in many cases they come out with skills that the marketplace doesn’t want.’ Lampl argued that students would be ‘better served’ by doing an apprenticeship where ‘you earn while you learn, you come out with no debt and you come out with skills the marketplace wants’ [source: Daily Telegraph].

Nonetheless, many, such as former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, believe university education is the route to ‘productive jobs’ and ‘high graduate salaries’, and added that it is ‘bit odd when largely graduate educated MPs say university isn’t for others’ [source: Twitter].

Who is right? How many people should go to university? Should there be a target at all? Should we focus on wages and good jobs, regardless of whether a degree is needed? Would the UK be better to prioritise other important skills, trades and professions that don’t require degrees? Or Is university education about more than just getting a good job, like wider self-improvement or becoming a better-informed citizen?


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A struggling economy

The UK economy has been in the doldrums for a long time, but particularly since the financial crisis in 2008. The size of the economy has grown slowly, but wages and productivity have stagnated [source: Office for National Statistics]. Many argue that this is because the UK lacks skilled workers. A report by Universities UK in April 2022 argues that far from there being too few graduates, the reality is that there are ‘one million more professional jobs than workers with degrees in the UK to fill them’ [source: Universities UK]. Many insist that more degrees are the way to revitalise the economy.

Others suggest the reverse: the economy is held back by the lack of attention to non-degree skills. Indeed, the claim that ‘we need plumbers not graduates’ has been around for at least 20 years. By encouraging so many people to go to university, it is claimed, the number of people willing to train for important, non-graduate jobs has shrunk [source: Independent].

But perhaps this either/or description is wrong. Is a degree in English or media studies a barrier to becoming an accountant or a software engineer after graduating? Moreover, some argue that the problems of the economy have more to do with a lack of business investment rather than with a shortage of skilled workers [source: Reuters].

University: an expensive waste of time?

English students pay up to £9,250 a year to study (whilst Scottish students don’t have tuition fees) [source: UCAS]. They are funded by government loans, which attract increasing levels of interest, and are repaid according to your post-graduation salary, with those on low incomes repaying nothing [source:]. Between the interest rates and the fact that many graduates don’t earn high salaries, the think tank Onward estimated that 83 per cent of student loans would never be paid back in full [source:]. The result is that both the government and graduates must pay billions of pounds to fund higher education.

Is this investment worthwhile? The picture for average graduate starting salaries is mixed, varying from £29,653 in banking to just £20,861 in travel and hospitality [source:]. While graduates from the top universities tend to do well, graduates from many lower-ranked universities struggle to find a job after their courses, despite paying similar fees in many cases [source: Telegraph].

Many suggest that a startling percentage of degrees are essentially worthless. As one investigation puts it: ‘Never before has Britain had so many qualified graduates. And never before have their qualifications amounted to so little. Each year, far from creating graduates of an unparalleled calibre, Britain is producing waves of sub-prime students.’ [Source: New Statesman] Even before the switch to online-only teaching during the pandemic, some argue that too many university courses are already more about providing the customers (students) with the necessary piece of paper at the end of their course rather than giving them a degree worthy of the name. Would such graduates be better off doing something else?

Alternatives to university

Other countries, particularly Germany, seem to have a much better record of educating workers in technical skills like engineering. Pupils can choose to go to vocational schools in their final years at school before undergoing more specialised education while working at a company. Various attempts have been made over the years to replicate this kind of education in the UK to help resolve skills shortages.

For example, since September 2020, some school students in England have been able to opt for T-levels instead of A-levels after GCSE. T-levels offer classroom learning and on-the-job training. According to the Department for Education: ‘T-levels differ from an apprenticeship. T-levels prepare students for work, further training or further study. An apprenticeship is typically 80 per cent on-the-job and 20 per cent in the classroom and is more suited to those who want to earn a wage and learn at the same time, and are ready to enter the workforce at age 16.’ [source: Department for Education] However, there have been criticisms of T-levels – in particular that, thanks to the new Skills Bill, they cut off a route to more academic education too early and remove funding for BTEC courses that are more college-based [source: FE Week].

Moreover, many firms now require degrees for applicants to be considered, even if no specific degree is required for the job, but simply as a way of reducing the number of applicants to be considered. Indeed, in some areas, firms require a degree from new employees even though people who are retiring after doing the same job didn’t have one [source: BBC Worklife].

Universities: past and future

But many portray this focus on technical skills like engineering as old-fashioned. University, they say, helps students acquire a range of general skills that employers find valuable: research, communication, computer proficiency and other ‘soft’ skills. With changes such as artificial intelligence (AI) on the horizon, the workers of the future, according to the Tony Blair institute, ‘require a combination of aptitudes such as critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, alongside technical knowledge, to prosper in the labour market of the future’.

But could these ‘soft’ skills be learned ‘on the job’? Blair’s son, Euan, argues that the focus on university has been unhelpful: ‘For a long period of time we’ve allowed universities and academia to be the gatekeepers of who gets access to the best careers and then effectively who the winners and losers in society are… That’s a problem when there’s no major correlation between academics and job performance.’ [source: i news]

In the past, the UK grew much faster even though hardly anyone went to university. As one academic points out: ‘Only four per cent of school leavers went to university in the 1950s. That figure rose to just 14 per cent by the end of the 1970s. Today, of course, participation rates stand at over 50 per cent. Yet despite the massive increase in the undergraduate population, productivity growth was more impressive in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. In 1960, for instance, Britain had the highest level of productivity in Europe (measured in gross domestic product per hour worked).’ Instead, he argues: ‘Universities do not exist to raise productivity levels or improve a nation’s GDP. Their purpose is to develop and disseminate knowledge, and to stimulate young, eager minds in the process.’ [source: Spiked]

What is the point of university?

For many people, going to university means more than just getting a good job, from the chance to study a beloved subject in depth to the opportunity to make friends with people from completely different backgrounds to your own, or enjoying new experiences and having the space to understand the world more broadly without the pressures of holding down a job [source: Cardiff University]. Is this not the right of everyone?

Where, too, do the traditional ideals of education – to learn what Victorian writer Matthew Arnold called ‘the best that has been thought and known’ – fit in? Should we stop treating university instrumentally and value knowledge and inquiry for its own sake? [source: Academy of Ideas] What would university look like, and how many people would go, if it was a place of education rather than job-preparation?

In 1918, The American social critic Thorstein Veblen wrote: ‘Ideally, and in the popular apprehension, the university is, as it has always been, a corporation for the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals.’ [source: Guardian]. Do modern universities live up to Veblen’s ideal? Should they?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Tony Blair is wrong – again – on education, education, education
Ed Dorrell Independent 21 April 2022

Why universities had to be challenged
David Goodhart UnHerd 14 July 2020

The great university con: how the British degree lost its value
Harry Lambert New Statesman 21 August 2019

Too many young people are wasting their time by studying poor degrees at university
Paul Ormerod City AM 27 September 2016


We Don’t Need No Education? The Case for Expanding Higher Education
Tony Blair Institute 21 April 2022 (read executive summary)

Three problems: Important omissions from David Goodhart’s assault on universities (life expectancy, student choice and degree content)
Nick Hillman HEPI 23 October 2020

Tony Blair is right: more people should go on to higher education
Sam Freedman New Statesman 22 April 2022

Ignore the doubters, go to university if you can
Alice Thomson The Times 10 August 2021


DEBATE: Are too many people going to university?
Rob Walker and James Fisher City AM 11 August 2021

‘Too many’ teenagers going to university, warns education charity chief
Camilla Turner Telegraph 8 August 2021

Johnson: Too many university graduates end up with degrees that don’t get them the jobs
London Evening Standard 29 September 2020

Students ‘taken advantage of’ by universities letting ‘too many’ onto courses, says minister Michelle Donelan
i news 1 July 2020

Four decades of failure in tackling skills shortages
Tom Bewick FE News 15 October 2021

Level 3 qualifications reform: What’s happening to BTECs?
Commons Library 18 November 2021


Podcast | Are too many people going to university?
Institute for Fiscal Studies 19 May 2021

Debate: Too Many People go to University
Intelligence Squared 1 August 2013

How do we solve the skills crisis?
Skill World Live, 15 October 2021