Employers face up to costs of higher education

2005

With the debts of Britain's graduates set to grow even larger when variable tuition fees are introduced next year, employers worried about the knock-on effect of the spiralling cost of higher education are beginning to offer graduate trainees practical financial help.

Charged retrospectively on top of student loans, the fees of £3,000 per year could see graduates leaving university owing between £15,000 and £20,000.

It is a prospect that the Government insists will not deter people from going to university. But do graduate employers share their confidence?

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), says that by and large, they do.

"There is certainly no panic among our members. Graduate salaries have risen again this year, by 4.8 per cent on last year, with the average starting salary of £22,000 compared with £21,000 last year, and I believe they will continue to rise."

But will attractive potential earnings be enough to offset the worry of debt? Will there be fewer graduates around in five, six or seven years time?

"We are not concerned that mounting debts will result in a significant drop in graduates year on year, and our own growth plans are consistent with a buoyant market," says Jonathan Fitchew, joint managing director of graduate recruitment firm Pareto Law.

"One area that must be closely monitored, however, is the exploitation of graduates. We should remember why we employ them - because they are ambitious, motivated and the future of our business, and not because they need to work harder than previous generations to get themselves in the black."

It is likely that higher levels of debt will impact on the lower end of the market

It is likely that higher levels of debt will impact on the lower end of the market, where graduate salaries are around the £15,000 mark, the level at which the fees become repayable.

This may result in an increase in the quality of those entering the job market post A' level, with bright individuals being unable to afford to continue in education.

A 2003 report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education stated that 80 per cent of jobs created between then and the end of the decade would require higher education skills.

In that report, the Chief Executive of the Logica Group had said, "Our whole industry needs more graduates, not less. If it cannot find them in the UK, it will recruit them overseas and the UK will lose out as a result."

The report also contained a quote from the Chairman of Unilever who said, "If businesses do not have access to graduates, our economy will suffer as night follows day."

But Carl Gilleard says that with additional financial incentives recruiters should be able to maintain a healthy graduate talent pool. A number of companies are already paying their graduate recruits a one-off joining bonuses - between £500 and £5000 - according to an AGR survey carried out earlier this year,

"Some employers have been doing this for quite some time," he says. "They are well aware that it costs money to start a new job and that new graduate recruits need a suit, travel costs, possibly relocation costs."

Interest-free loans are another incentive for debt-laden candidates, and are currently offered to around a fifth of graduates.

Tesco has taken the graduate engagement process a stage further with a new scheme, currently being piloted, called Save as You Study. For every £10 that a student recruit saves, the company doubles it, up to a maximum of £190 saved by the student over a period of two academic years.

HR manager Dan Weintrob says, "We spent a lot of time finding out what our student employees, some of them our future graduate recruits, really wanted, and the simple answer was help with managing their money.

"We also offer a store transfer service, whereby, location permitting, they can carry on working part time for Tesco whether they are at home or at university. The feedback we've had from those taking part has been very positive"

But inevitably there will be a large number of graduates who fail to secure one of the top jobs and have no choice but to enter the open market and compete with non-graduate candidates.

"Graduates saddled with huge debts will be competing against non graduates who have no debts but lots of industry experience," says Gilleard. "I cannot see how organisations in the general employment market are going to respond or contribute financially to their situation in any way."