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The global demand for graduates

Oct: It is the classic nightmare: you run faster and faster but still, with hot breath on your neck, the pursuing footsteps get closer and closer.

This is exactly what is happening to Britain's attempt to produce new graduates. Yes, more people are completing university courses than ever before. But other countries are doing so faster.

According to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the UK has slipped from 3rd place to 10th in terms of the proportion of young people completing a university education.

It warns that the UK is likely to slip further behind, with several more countries set to overtake us in the next few years.

So why are we falling behind and does it matter?

Part of the problem is that a very large swathe of opinion in Britain simply does not believe that we need more graduates.

This includes saloon bar sages, large sections of the media, and - until recently - it also included the Conservative party, which for years ridiculed the government's target of getting 50% of young people through higher education.

This might explain why we so often hear young people casting doubt on the value of going to university. The message they are getting from some quarters is that they would do better to go straight into a job.

For a minority, this may be true. But future employment patterns are hard to predict. Tying yourself to a particular job type is risky when you have a 30 or 40-year working life ahead.

Graduate earning power
A few years ago there were constant complaints about a lack of plumbers or electricians. It seemed a great trade to enter. Now immigration from eastern Europe is filling much of that need.

In a fast changing labour market, future employability is going to require flexible skills and evidence of the ability and application to learn something new.

The OECD's figures also confirm that, despite popular perception, a degree still brings individuals higher average earnings and lower risks of unemployment.

They also suggest real benefits for the country as a whole: those countries which saw the fastest expansion of higher education in the late 1990s also saw the greatest improvement in unemployment.

But the biggest obstacle to higher graduation rates in the UK is not the attitudes of the anti-university brigade or even the increased cost of getting a degree.

The real problem lies further down the age range: it is the bottleneck of achievement at the upper end of secondary education.

Look at the OECD's statistics and another, even more startling, picture emerges: the UK's poor performance amongst 15-19 year olds.

Here our international position is not 3rd or even 10th. It is 23rd.

Just 78.5% of our 15-19 year olds are still in education, either full-time or part-time.

That is below the OECD average of 81.5% and even further below the EU average of 85.2%.

As well as having a higher drop out rate before the age of 19, the UK also has relatively low numbers achieving good qualifications on leaving school. This too adds to the bottleneck of potential university applicants.

Diploma's role
So, what is being done about it? Well, still largely out of sight of the general public, schools and colleges are now gearing up for the biggest change to qualifications for 20 years: the start of the new Diploma courses in less than a year from now.

The Diplomas may not be attracting much media attention just yet, but they are certainly concentrating the minds of staff in secondary schools and colleges. They could be the answer to the UK's relative decline in secondary school and university graduation rates.

As a new form of learning, still fundamentally academic in style but related to vocational themes, they just might be precisely the hook needed to engage young people in learning.

But, for now, this is only a possibility, not a certainty.

The stakes for the Diploma are high. The prize is a solution to many of the problems in secondary education. Equally, it could all go wrong, leaving behind yet another failed initiative aimed at 14-19 year-olds.

Much of the problem lies in the mixed messages that surround it. The Diplomas were originally described as vocational and as "specialised".

Since they offer job-related learning in areas such as engineering, construction, IT, and health this made sense.

But now the government is panicking over the perception of the new Diplomas. They fear they will be seen as second-class if they are associated with vocational courses.

So they have dropped the "specialised" from the name and insist they are "academic" not "vocational" qualifications.

This confusion is not going to help. A big selling drive is needed to persuade students and parents to sign up.

A simple, clear message is urgently required. There will be 40,000 students who have to be recruited for next year and if pupils and parents don't start to hear about, understand, and most importantly respect, the Diplomas, they will not choose them.

It also does not help that we still do not know how many points the Diploma will be worth in the UCAS tariff used for university entrance.

Yet, if the message can be delivered, the Diplomas have the potential to really change young people's engagement in learning and to raise secondary graduation rates. This could be the golden bullet that will end the bottleneck that is restricting university entrance and graduation rates.

ANALYSIS By Mike Baker - BBC Education News
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