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Labour market myths: 'Everyone has a degree nowadays'

February 2018

With media focus on 'fake news', you'd be right to question assumptions about the graduate labour market. Equip yourself with the facts so you can challenge these labour market misconceptions…

What's the assumption?

Technological change has generated jobs that didn't previously exist and these new jobs demand different skills and qualifications. The UK workforce is adapting to a rapidly evolving economy and this has led to more people studying for a degree, creating the perception that everyone has a degree nowadays.

How did this myth arise?

A huge growth in the number of first degrees awarded in the UK in the last 50 years, up from 32,166 in 1966 to 382,095 in 2016, might make you think that the majority of people have a degree. 1

As well as university expansion in the 1960s and 1990s, the rise in graduates was fuelled by:

  • the Labour government's drive to get 50% of young people aged 18 to 30 into university by the end of the last decade
  • the 2008 recession, which encouraged more people to gain NVQ4+ qualifications. Recessions have a more damaging impact on non-graduates than graduates and often lead to a rise in postgraduate study. Find out more about the effect of recession on the graduate labour market.

The larger number of graduates living in affluent cities, particularly in the South of England, could also have given an unbalanced impression to people in those regions. For example, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that:

  • 71.4% of the population in Cambridge had a degree in 2016
  • 65.1% in Oxford
  • 63.7% in St. Albans
  • 59.4% in London.

By contrast, people in regions with fewer graduates, such as West Bromwich (24.7%), Barnsley (25%), Grimsby (25%), Bradford (25.6%) and Stoke-on-Trent (25.6%), may be less likely to conclude that everyone has a degree.2

What are the facts?

In reality, less than half of the UK workforce has a degree or equivalent qualification (43.5%), according to the ONS. This breaks down by age group to:

  • 29.8% of 20 to 24-year-olds
  • 46.1% of 25 to 29-year-olds
  • 48.7% of 30 to 39-year-olds.

What will happen in the future?

The number of jobs requiring a degree as a minimum entry level has increased and will continue to do so. For example, after 2020, those wishing to become a police officer in England and Wales will need to complete a degree.

It cannot be said, however, that changes like this will contribute to a rise in degrees awarded. University is not for everyone and there are many other avenues to employment.

Also in this series


  1. Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) 2015/16, HESA, 2017.
  2. Annual Population Survey 2015/16, Office of National Statistics (ONS), 2017.

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