KINGSTON, ENGLAND — For Sam Dooley, the exams are over but the hard work is just about to begin.
The young British graduate has just completed his last paper on modernist English literature. But the flood of relief and the post exam festivities have been tempered by the imposing challenge ahead: how to turn his degree into gainful employment that will pay off his $20,000 debt and make his investment in three years of university worth it.
"I've just got off the Internet looking for jobs back at home in the southwest," says Mr. Dooley, as he strolls across the sun-drenched campus of his southern England university. "I've got to go back to live with my parents just to start with. I can't afford to do anything else."
It's a challenge that confronts graduates across the globe. But here in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for large increases in student numbers and where the number of graduates has almost doubled in 10 years, the depressing outlook has prompted a vigorous debate about the economic and philosophical benefits of higher education.
Is a degree just about tooling up for the job market, and if so, is it a wasted investment if you can't get a job? Or is it about gaining a broader cultural experience and rite of passage that will ultimately benefit society in subtler ways?
There is growing evidence that a British degree may no longer be the passport to riches it used to be. Student numbers have exploded over the past 15 years, though the number of graduate jobs has not. Many will leave university more than $10,000 in debt, but one recent survey found that just a third of final-year students expected to get a graduate-level job.
"The results for 2004 are certainly the most gloomy we have seen," says Martin Birchall, survey director of High Fliers Research Limited, which interviewed 16,000 final-year students about their graduation hopes and fears this year.
"Debts are at an all-time high and yet it does seem that the prospects even for graduates at the top, of going on to well-paid employment are at an all time low," says Mr. Birchall. "Going to university is no longer a guarantee of finding a good job or even a well-paid job."
Still, Dooley says he would not trade his literature degree for more marketable vocational training because for him, the experience was about more than just preparing for a career. "I've had three years of being able to sit and think and read. That's invaluable. I won't get the chance to do that again."
For Mandy Telford, the experience has been delayed a year. Elected as president of the National Union of Students gave her a buffer, and a high-profile one at that. But now reality is about to bite.
"I was elected to the job, and started straight after I graduated, so I never had to go through that first job interview. I'm only coming to that now, and suddenly thinking about what I want to do with my life and it's kind of scary."
Mr. Blair has indicated that as far as higher education is concerned, the more the merrier. He wants 50 percent of 18-to-30-year-olds to progress to higher education by 2010.
Internationally, that is not so ambitious: several countries including New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden have rates well above 60 percent. And yet, compared with Britain's own past, it's a staggering increase.
In 1950, just 3 percent of the population went to university. In 1988, student numbers topped 1 million. Now they easily exceed 2 million. In the past 10 years, the number of graduates has almost doubled to close to 300,000 every year. Blair's government says this is a universal good. Its statisticians say that a degree adds 50 percent to earnings over a lifetime, and its surveys say 5 in 6 graduates think university is a good investment.
Not everyone shares that view. Miss Telford says: "Government statistics say the average graduate earns more than £400,000 [$730,000] extra over a lifetime. We refute it and they can't come up with statistics to back it up."
Recent research by academics Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh warn that a surfeit of graduate labor is depressing incomes (and graduates).
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence hints that the converse may also be true: a shortage of plumbers, electricians, and handymen has that sector's salaries up.
Yet for many graduates, commentators, and academics, higher education should not be viewed purely as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, a process that enriches society because of the types of individuals it produces. One recent poll of current students found that 95 percent thought their time at university was worthwhile.
"There is very good evidence about the noneconomic benefits of graduates," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank. "Things like better health, better socialization - they are more likely to be engaged in the community - quite apart from the benefits to society of having a more civilized population."
Mr. Bekhradnia notes that Britain has the highest proportion of young people leaving education at age 16 in the Western world, and adds that the country has not reached its student saturation point yet.
"We certainly do need more plumbers, I know that from my own experience, but we also need more people going to higher education," he says.
Professor Peter Elias, who Wednesday published research based on interviews conducted with 200 graduates, says that focusing purely on the job market neglects the very important self-developmental principle of higher education.
"We noticed that people who have got degrees in subjects that are not relevant to the jobs they do still talk about how important that period of high education was for their maturity, their ability to think, and their feeling of self-worth," says Mr. Elias of Warwick University.
"It goes without saying that we should value higher education in its own right."