In an ideal world, everyone investing in their skills through education and training would enter the labour market and find a job which took full advantage of those skills. Concerns that this has not been the case for successive cohorts of university graduates are longstanding, particularly in Britain following the rapid expansion of the higher education sector in the early 1990s. However, there is wide disagreement about the extent of the problem, or how much it has changed over the past decades.
It is commonplace to hear people refer, often interchangeably, to "over-education", "under- employment", "over-qualification", "over-skilling" and "under- utilisation". But ultimately these terms apply to two aspects of graduate work: Whether a person needs to possess a degree to get a job, and whether they need the skills learnt through studying for a degree to actually do the job.
Given the increase in the number of graduate applicants for jobs, it should not be surprising to find that more and more jobs require a degree to get through the recruitment process. As the Higher Education Funding Council for England has pointed out, 65 per cent of recent graduates report that having a degree was either a formal requirement or an advantage in securing jobs once out of university.
The more substantial issue is whether the job, once secured, requires skills learnt at university, or if the degree was simply a way for employers to screen candidates. All too frequently, the two points are conflated.
BRITAIN AND THE REST OF EUROPE
In a report we produced for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we used two European surveys to indicate how different countries compare when it comes to producing jobs that require "graduate-level" skills. In both surveys, Britain does appear to have a relatively high proportion of its graduate workforce in jobs that don't require such skills.
By one measure, nearly 60 per cent of British graduates, of all ages, working in 2010 were in jobs which did not require the completion of a degree. However, as we argued in the report, these types of self-reported survey data have some real problems.
It is hard, for example, to work out when skills were actually developed during the long course of education, and almost impossible to say whether they would have been produced anyway if individuals had taken a different route into the labour market.
We could, as many labour economists have done, look at the wage differences between graduates and non-graduates. The large and persistent gap between the two, even as graduate numbers increase, suggests demand for them has also risen, but this could equally be due to rising demand for graduate skills or changes in employer screening and recruitment practices.
Through recruitment, graduates out-compete non-graduates for the available better-paying jobs, pushing the average wages of non-graduates downwards.
WHAT IS A GRADUATE JOB?
It is therefore important to look at the work graduates are actually doing. Of course, the notion of a "graduate job" is difficult to define. The most recent data on the destination of university leavers shows that 75 per cent of graduates are working in professional, managerial, associate professional and technical occupations, which implies one in four has started his working life in lower-skilled jobs.
The bigger point is that it is not correct to equate the higher-skilled occupational groups with graduate jobs. In the mid-1990s, only around 20-25 per cent of workers in managerial, associate professional and technical occupations were graduates - this rose to around 40-45 per cent by last year.
For the graduates entering occupations where once there were largely non-graduates, we need to see evidence that something is changing in the content of the job - that it is upgrading and requiring more skill - to argue that their graduate skills are being utilised and that the existing routes into these jobs were not just as effective (as well as being cheaper).
To do this, we use data from the Workplace Employment Relations Survey on one aspect of jobs - the amount of autonomy, discretion and influence employees have over their work - to capture the skill requirements of a particular occupation. We looked at how this has changed over time (from 1998 to 2011) and, crucially, how it differs for graduates and non-graduates in the same types of jobs.
What we found is that graduates' use of skills across the labour market was mixed, leading to a range of different outcomes.
There are a number of occupations which we could characterise as "upgrading" to accommodate extra graduates - these were where autonomy was increasing and was greater for graduates compared to non-graduates. But many other occupations, where the share of graduates had increased, did not fit this description.
For some occupations, graduate autonomy was falling relative to the occupation as a whole - indicating that graduates were taking on lesser-skilled jobs as a consequence of increased competition. For others, decreases were in line with absolute falls in autonomy across the occupation - which we call deskilling. There are also a number of types of work where graduates had less autonomy than non-graduates, suggesting that graduate skills might actually be mismatched to the requirements of those occupations.
•Craig Holmes is Lecturer in Economics at University of Oxford; Charoula Tzanakou is Research Fellow, Warwick Institute for Employment Research at University of Warwick; Daria Luchinskaya is IAS Early Career Fellow at University of Warwick; and Ken Mayhew is Emeritus Professor of Education and Economic Performance at University of Oxford
•This article first appeared in conversation.com, a website of analyses from academics and researchers.