Middle-class problems: are graduates stuck in non-graduate roles?

14 January 2014

Ahead of a widely-trailed speech later this week, Mr Miliband set out his plans to "rebuild our middle class" in an article for the Telegraph. We've taken a look at some of his main claims:

"One in three graduates has had to take a job, according to recent research, than used to be done by people who hadn't gone to university."

Ed Miliband, Telegraph 14 Jan 2014

Young, educated people are facing particularly difficult times according to the Labour leader, who told Telegraph readers that graduates are struggling to find the jobs to match their academic credentials.

The claim seems to stem from an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, which shows that 34% of graduates who left education five years or more ago are currently employed in "non-graduate roles". Nearly half of those graduating within the past five years are in similar sorts of work, and the proportion for both groups has increased in recent years.

(Graduate and non-graduate roles are defined here using a classification system developed by academics. Examples of non-graduate roles given by the ONS are: receptionists, sales assistants, many types of factory workers, care workers and home carers.)

This might not seem surprising when you consider that the proportion of the population that are graduates has more than doubled over the past two decades.

The definition of graduate used by the ONS covers anyone with qualifications beyond their A-levels, which includes university degrees but also profession-specific, vocational and technical qualifications. This is significant, as recent years have seen a sharp increase in the number of people graduating from vocational and technical courses who would meet the ONS's definition of a graduate.

We therefore need to be careful about how we interpret these sets of figures: Mr Miliband goes slightly too far in using this research to contrast graduates with people who haven't gone to university.

The definition of 'graduate jobs' used by the ONS doesn't quite match up to this, being focused on courses which provided what the academics responsible for creating it called "the inculcation of knowledge, rather than the development of 'employability skills'." This means that someone who studied electrical engineering to 'graduate level' might not be considered to be working a 'graduate-level' job if they chose to work as an electrical technician after completing their studies. 

We spoke to the ONS, who confirmed that while the two definitions do not perfectly overlap, they had worked with the academics responsible for defining a graduate job to ensure that the two were as comparable as possible. They also mentioned that the proportion of graduates employed in non-graduate jobs doesn't change by very much if the analysis is limited to those holding university degrees, and they hope to publish more on this in the future.

So while Mr Miliband's statistic is accurate - and may even be an understatement - if we use the ONS's definition of graduate, we shouldn't understand it purely in terms of those who go to university, a nuance missed by the Labour leader.

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