Obstacles line up after graduation

Not so many years ago, finding a job after university was as simple as collecting your student grant.

Not so many years ago, finding a job after university was as simple as collecting your student grant.

Graduates seemed to waltz into their chosen careers with the promise of a lucrative future ahead and wallets intact.

Nowadays, the job market is trickier than quantum physics, debts are eye-wateringly high and nearly 40pc of graduates are still scrabbling for employment 12 months after they leave university.

The faltering economy, student numbers and what some consider Mickey-Mouse degrees have all been blamed for a situation in urgent need of an overhaul.

The government itself is keen to press the case for students to pay their own way, particularly with figures revealing the average graduate starting salary has risen by £1,000 over the last year.

For Labour, this is a sure sign that demand from employers remains strong.

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In reality, with unemployment slowly rising and student debt increasing, the outlook for graduates seems bleaker than it has been for some time.

National Union of Students' president Gemma Tumelty said: "It is deeply concerning that the average student salary is only around £19,000, bearing in mind the massive levels of debt that students are graduating with. The government has consistently justified the introduction of top-fees with the assumption that graduates will earn considerably more than non-graduates when they leave university, and will therefore be able to pay back huge amounts of debts.

"Research shows not all students enter highly-paid jobs straightaway, if at all."

Inevitably, the government prefers a "glass half-full" take, with minister for higher education Bill Rammell insisting graduates still perform "exceptionally" well in the labour market. "We already know that they are less than half as likely to be unemployed than non-graduates when looking across the economy as a whole," he said.

"Recent research suggests that 18 million jobs will become vacant between 2004 to 2020, half of which will be in occupations most likely to employ graduates.

"Just six months after leaving university, graduates are earning on average £18,000 per year.

"That's a rise of £1,000 from last year. And this is just the start of what, for many, will be fulfilling and lucrative careers.

"This increase indicates that the demand of graduates is still strong, despite the growth in graduate numbers."

But while government ministers can afford to be relaxed, the introduction of top-up fees is clearly a source of concern for parents and students.

So much so, in fact, that a new swap scheme has been launched to help with the cost of university education.

Under the plan, parents with children going away to university are being invited to house the son or daughter of another family in the same situation. It is the sort of desperate ploy born out of adversity, but who can blame the parents - or students for that matter?

The government's decision to force them into taking on so much debt has failed to stave off a funding crisis in our universities and is putting off people from non-traditional backgrounds, who might otherwise have been considering higher education.

Gemma Tumelty said: "This flies in the face of Alan Johnson's [education secretary] comments that students will "learn to love" top-up fees.

"I very much doubt that given the relatively low average salary and the incredibly high level of debt, attitudes will have swung in favour of paying for higher education as Mr Johnson has previously suggested."

Andy Higson, the UEA's student- union communication officer, said the top-up fees amounted to a graduate tax.

He argues that students pay more in taxes on average anyway, so should not be hit twice.

He did, however, point out that university is still one of the best ways to land a plum job.

The reality is no system is perfect, but saddling graduates with huge levels of debt in a vulnerable job market is potentially a recipe for disaster.

Maybe for once the student, so often cursed by those who have had to subsidise their lifestyle, will be the object of our sympathy.

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