This week, I’m supposed to writing a pamphlet on student engagement and preparing 3 speeches for next week, so this has been a good few days for procrastination. While making my 15th cup of tea yesterday (not very original I know, but there’s only so much desk-tidying you can do) I happened upon a radio interview with a recent graduate and three MPs. The young man had spent a long time looking for the decently-paid job he thought his degree (Business and IT) would ensure. Having failed in his job-hunt, he’d done a succession of low-level jobs and struck me as remarkably sanguine. He felt he’d chosen the wrong course and was considering re-applying to university.
The Labour MP clearly had to take the party line, so we got lots of stuff about ‘ no such thing as a free lunch’, competitive environment, wait for the up-turn, etc. The other two MPs weren’t much help either, both expressing surprise that a degree in IT hadn’t resulted in a job.
No-one mentioned that universities, in attempting to hit government high education expansion targets, had over-saturated the supply side of IT graduates, and that there simply isn’t the demand anymore from employers. No-one talked about what happens when globalisation meets technology. Knowledge Process Outsourcing (which I’ve blogged about, earlier) has profound ramifications for higher education in the over-developed world: armies of post-graduates from developing countries are working for $4 an hour, as online freelancers, providing legal, management, IT, design and finance tasks for UK and US companies. These developments present real challenges, especially to the middle-class devotion to a university education.
When Tony Blair, in 1997 set a target of 50% of young people going to university, he couldn’t have foreseen these kind of seismic changes, but we have to accept that the days of a degree being a passport to a well-paid job are over. There’ll be a lag, but in 10 years, the expected salary levels for graduates will have plummeted, compared to their historical advantage over non-graduates. Somewhat surprisingly, this year saw a record number of applications to universities and, predictably, the unis were pressing all the emotional buttons they could find (‘300,000 young people denied access). But, it’s time we recognised that we’re in a different ball-game now, and fewer people going to university might actually be a good thing, especially if, as I suspect, many of the current applicants are simply filling in the forms because: a) they don’t know what else to do with their lives or b) we, the parents, have this illogical expectation that they must have a degree, or their lives will suffer.
The UK disease of down-grading vocational training, (and therefore further education colleges), as a second-best alternative to academia, has caused incalculable harm, not only to our economic competitiveness, but also to young people’s morale. Organisations like Edge have fought a difficult, and sometimes solitary, battle to restore some sense of balance in the debate over higher vs further education, but it feels like the argument is about to turn in their favour.
The radio piece was concluded by a telling text sent in by a listener. He had three friends – only one didn’t go to uni, and he was now employing the other two.