A new report jointly produced by an Institute for Public Policy Research think tank and the University and Colleges Union warns that the UK’s decreasing number of graduates may spell economic disaster as other countries plough funding into expanding higher education.

Fewer University Places

The report, which compares the UK higher education sector to its international competitors, issues a stark warning about the risks of reducing available university places, pointing out that there will be 25,000 fewer places in English universities in 2012 than in the previous year. As we reported in February, the on-going government budget squeeze has hit higher education particularly hard, with the worrying result that an enormous 31% of undergraduate courses had been axed since 2006.

Courses Axed

Most worrying of all, many of the courses that are disappearing are those which will be most crucial for Britain’s future success in international trade and economy, with the new report particularly condemning the drop in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) provision in higher education. As we pointed out back in February, single honours language courses are also being hit particularly hard, with students now unable to study certain languages at all in some parts of the country. Producing graduates with strong language skills will be essential if we are to continue to maintain a strong presence on the international stage.

Slipping Behind International Competitors

The report explains that this decline in UK university graduates will be particularly disastrous in context of the fact that other fast-developing countries are investing rapidly in higher education, making the contrast even more significant. It points to the fact that India is planning an extra 800 higher education institutions by 2012, whilst the number of graduates in China quadrupled between 1999 and 2005. In 2000, the UK had the third highest number of graduates compared to other advanced industrialised nations. By 2008, we had slipped to fifteenth.

Job Losses

Experts warn that the availability of far greater numbers of skilled and educated graduates in various fields, particularly in STEM related subjects, will lead major contracts and thousands of jobs away from the UK market.

False Economy

In addition, the report damningly reveals the government’s restrictions on higher education places and funding to be a false economy, by suggesting that every graduate is worth ten times as much to the economy as the amount it costs the state to educate them. They cite figures that whilst the average graduate costs the state £18,800 to educate, they will bring in £180,000 more over the course of their working lives than those going straight into the work force after school.

So whilst the UK slips rapidly behind its international competitors, our attempts to salvage our dire financial situation may actually be putting the final nail in our economic coffin.