UK graduate jobs outnumbered graduates by 1m in 2020, study shows

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The UK has nearly a million graduate-level jobs without qualified staff filling them, according to a report for universities that predicts the labour market’s appetite for graduates will remain strong in the near future.

Using data from official sources, the report published by Universities UK found there were 15 million people with degrees or equivalent qualifications working in the UK at the end of 2020 – and nearly 16 million positions in managerial and professional occupations defined as graduate-level jobs.

The figures are supported by data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which show that while 14% of the UK’s workforce are overqualified for their current jobs – including graduates working in non-graduate occupations – more than 27% are classed as “underqualified”, including non-graduates filling graduate-level roles.

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The UUK report is an attempt to rebut misconceptions about graduate employment, such as that undergraduate degrees can be poor value or that too many graduates are unable to find skilled employment.

But demand for graduates remained high during the Covid pandemic, according to the Institute for Student Employers. It says the number of graduate vacancies is now 20% higher than before the pandemic in 2019. Job vacancies for graduates are expected to increase again this year compared with 2021.

Prof Steve West, UUK’s president and the vice-chancellor of UWE-Bristol, said: “Despite some questioning the value of graduate skills, this report shows that employer demand for UK graduates is significant – it has increased year on year and is likely to grow in the future.

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“It is important that the UK government develops the right conditions for universities to fully support business growth and skills development for learners of all ages. To be clear, this means that the UK government must invest in a sustainable long-term funding solution for higher education.”

Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister for England, said the figures “show just how important higher education and skills are for the UK’s future”.

Donelan said the government was “taking forward the biggest reforms to post-18 education in a decade” in England. “We aim to further improve graduate outcomes and continue to drive up quality to deliver the highest-quality education for students from all walks of life,” she said.

The government’s recent proposals include increasing the cost of undergraduate student loans for students in England, so that lower and middle income earners are likely to have to find £30,000 more to repay their loans from next year.

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The government is also consulting on the introduction of minimum GCSE grades required to qualify for student loans, which critics say would largely stop some school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to higher education.

The UUK report shows that the number of UK workers in professional occupations rose by 647,200 in 2020, while those in other roles fell by 817,000 during the first year of the pandemic.

Stephen Isherwood, the chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, said: “In both the short and long term the demand for skilled graduates is only going to increase. To ensure that employers can access the talent they require right across the UK economy, it is imperative that we continue to invest in graduate talent.”

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