In a speech on Tuesday, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, called on universities to drive “true social mobility”. She argued that social mobility is not just about getting people into university and that too many young people are recruited to courses “that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”. She emphasised the gap in achievement and progression between different groups of learners, which was demonstrated in the Graduate Outcomes data published this month.

Any sector with the longevity and scale of the higher education system should always be challenged to be better, to evolve and to adapt especially in light of the impacts the current pandemic will have on our future labour markets. Without doubt, there has been a tremendously ambitious and successful push over decades to help more people into higher education. In 1960, just 4% of young people attended university. They could choose from a narrow range of courses at one of just 24 institutions. Today, there are over 150 universities and almost half of young people benefit from the life-changing experience of higher education. Importantly, learners of all ages enter university, creating invaluable opportunities for reskilling and upskilling that benefits not just universities and their graduates, but employers and the economy too.

Universities have worked hard to adapt and innovate in a rapidly changing sector, to changing needs and changing student bodies. However, the challenge that universities, in partnership with employers and government, could and should do more to close inequalities in outcomes is fair. The Minister closed her speech by focusing on the need for universities to focus their efforts on supporting “…graduates into jobs that really will transform their lives”. For many universities this is absolutely front and centre in their relationship with their graduates. Graduates going into jobs that transform their lives is a positive reinforcement of the impact their university experience has been. This is a win win.

Trying to generate a common view on what skills people should develop and courses they should take during their degree will always risk some reductionism. Universities need to respond appropriately to ever changing student and employer demand, as well as balancing nurturing soft skills, creativity and independent learning against specific technical and competency skills. Evidence suggests that for most graduates having a degree does pay off, but universities should always be ready for challenge from employers and the Government to prepare for the future.

To challenge some of the assertion in the Minister’s speech- it is important to consider the nuances and intricacies of both labour markets and career pathways. Graduates don’t just walk into transformational jobs and the benefits of a degree are not paid back inside of, say, five years. The real challenge to graduates, universities and the Government (as a partner rather than a foe in this debate) is how we support graduates into jobs that will be both transformational to their lives and to the changing needs of the economy. Our economy will need all hands on deck, not just to see us through the recovery but to help us supercharge our rejuvenation. We will need the qualities, attributes and experiences engendered in our graduates through universities to adapt to the world of tomorrow.