Saturday, January 24, 2009

Degrees not worth a New Labour promise

The Blair government sold top-up fees with the illusion that a policy of higher education binge would pay off. The National intern scheme is a little step to right years of wrong.

When you think of the Blair years, the airy-fairy soundbites of 'knowledge economy', '21st century nation', 'wealth creation' and 'things can only get better' all spring to mind. Amongst the worst legacies of the years of delusion (1997-2007) you can safely include £3000-a-year tuition fees and an army of people with degrees worth nothing.

Tony Blair's words that a degree guarantees a better paid job have remained etched in history. Labour's policies of turning universities into degree-factories completely overlooked some obvious facts. Back in 2000, a study by the Centre for Economic Performance was already showing that "a third of workers" were "over-qualified". The government kept banging on that "going to university remains a very worthwhile investment" and top-up fees were brought in.

Nobody in the high ranks of the Labour party told Blair about the meaning of the word 'saturation'. Yet it's a simple fact. Take a law graduate, for instance: Britain has roughly the same amount of courts and court cases as it did thirty years ago, but the number of people holding a BA in law are probably ten times, maybe more, as many as back then. This is how the system clogs up. Thousands of those graduates will have to shelve their plans and look for the nearest call centre for work.
And now we're reaping the harvest. The papers are suddenly full of surveys and headlines about "Labour's graduates" who "aren't getting jobs", "Is there any point going to university", "Graduates struggling to get on the career ladder", and "A third of Brit graduates not employing their degrees". "Are degrees worth the paper they're printed on?" asked the Independent a few months ago, while Alex Betteridge, an Oxford graduate, recently wrote on Liberal Conspiracy:

"I can’t get a job. I haven’t been able to get a job for six months, and was recently rejected for work as a domestic cleaner at a London university, despite meeting the qualifications and having done the same job elsewhere".

At last, the world's cottoned on.

The trend had been obvious for a while, magically concealed by an economy still pretending to function on a binge of fake optimism and credit cards. When I graduated in 2002, and landed an admin job after hundreds of unsuccessful attempts, the most shocking aspect was the educational divide. Each and every one of the newest recruits at my workplace, the same generation as me, was a bunch of graduates in English, law, art, illustration, politics, history etc who could not find a more appropriate job for shit, no matter how hard they tried. Our older colleagues had needed GCSEs to manage exactly the same position as us. They were in disbelief at the sight of graduates stuck in a dead-end job whose requirements had to do with further education the same as tennis has to do with teamplay.

It's about time, therefore, that the government decided something had to be done. It may not be enough, but their National internship scheme is at least a sign that they're trying to right the wrongs of Blair's badly thought-out policies. At the Daily Mail, they can cry it's "a war on the middle classes" for all they like, but if banks can be saved from collapsing with billions of public money, then surely there is no harm in the government offering Britain's future generations a little help.

16 comments:

John B said...

"Britain has roughly the same amount of courts and court cases as it did thirty years ago, but the number of people holding a BA in law are probably ten times, maybe more, as many as back then"

But most people who work as lawyers never go anywhere near a courtroom; they're working on contracts and commercial arrangements to ensure that litigation doesn't happen. And the number of people doing those jobs may not have increased tenfold in 30 years, but it's certainly more than doubled.

In your workplace, older colleagues may be able to do the job holding only O-levels, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they do it as effectively (or in particular, that they did it as effectively when they were younger). A graduate will almost certainly be better at starting a new office job than a school-leaver...

claude said...

but it's certainly more than doubled.
Nowhere near enough to absorb the humongous rise in graduates. That may explain why, according to 2005figures, only 17.6% of Law graduates entered legal jobs, for example...

This was written by the Institute for Employment Studies in 1999 (so imagine now...!) "More than 400,000 students graduated last year, more than double the number a decade ago, but the number of jobs offered by blue-chip companies has barely risen for 20 years".

In your workplace, older colleagues may be able to do the job holding only O-levels, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they do it as effectively (or in particular, that they did it as effectively when they were younger).

Quite the opposite. They were more disciplined. Less frustrated. Their turnover level infinitely lower.

Anita said...

Oh you are one John B ;-P
Shame it's too late but you'd have been an excellent press officer for the Blair government.

How can you possibly deny that there's too many graduates around?

It's a simple fact.
Be serious now. Stop being a contrarian for the sake of it.

If you turn 50% of all under-30s into proud holders of degrees, how do you turn 50% of all jobs available into something that requires an "academic" background?

Anonymous said...

Degrees are NOT worth much these days. I graduated with a 2:1 degree in Maths and Computer Science in 2000. I worked hard, and when I came out, there were NO jobs. I had already done an IT internship and it counted for NOTHING. Thousands of job applications later, and I ended up working for the Royal Mail!

Helen Highwater said...

You have to get a post grad diploma or Masters to peep over the heads of all the other graduates now. And you have to do this while working full-time, because you can't afford to work part-time because of your rent, your council tax and your enormous student overdraft which gets charged £15 a month in interest. Funny how that hasn't decresed since the interest rate drop and the bank bail-outs, isn't it?

John B said...

"They were more disciplined. Less frustrated. Their turnover level infinitely lower."

But you're comparing older workers to younger workers, there - those are factors that could easily explain the discipline and job security.

How can you possibly deny that there's too many graduates around?

Because I don't see any evidence that there are too many graduates around. I see evidence that:
1) graduates are no longer guaranteed skilled, well-paid employment;
2) being a graduate still puts you at a major advantage over non-graduates when looking for a skilled job.

The big question is whether a workforce made up of 40% graduates is better at getting work done than a workforce made up of 10% or 20% graduates. I've absolutely no idea whether or not this is the case, but the fact that it's hard for some people with degrees to get well-paid jobs just isn't relevant to that question.

claude said...

John B:
"But you're comparing older workers to younger workers, there - those are factors that could easily explain the discipline and job security."

John B is the same person who 24 hors earlier posted:

"that doesn't necessarily mean that they do it as effectively (or in particular, that they did it as effectively when they were younger)"...
Erm...You need to decide whether being 'younger' or 'older' makes you work better or worse and not change your opinion to make it fit the debate accordingly.

ALso,
"but the fact that it's hard for some people with degrees to get well-paid jobs just isn't relevant to that question"

You may also want to throw in the following question...:

Given that you agree degrees are guaranteeing less and less a higher paid job, are they worth the hassle, the financial strain, and the debt? Unless, of course, your parents are loaded and in which case it's no skin off their nose.

"2) being a graduate still puts you at a major advantage over non-graduates when looking for a skilled job."

It depends on the job. Because mostly I disagree. A vocational qualification today can unlock more doors than several degrees.

I wish I'd kept the copy, but I will never forget a couple of years ago, I was sitting in the tube in London and picked up a a copy of the Express that had been left on the seat.

Normally, the Express is a paper I would only use to wipe my bum, but that day it featured a long report quoting several employers and job agencies explaining that they were starting to deliberately shun graduates.

Obviously I cant remember the quote, but more or less, it's because graduates are too demanding, overqualified but with little practical experience, easily frustrated by their high expectations, and more difficult to mould.

That was the general gist. I tried to find it again on google but no luck.

P.S. John B.- re: our old debate. I travelled Stansted Birmingham by train, a month ago. £43 one way. Three and a half hours. British trains, value for money arent they?

George the XXII said...

Large numbers of young Americans enroll in college who have no interest in academic studies and just want the degree that is supposedly the ticket to the good life. They’ve been led to believe that there are no good jobs for people who lack a bachelor’s degree. That isn’t true, but the swarm of ill-prepared, disinterested students puts downward pressure on academic standards. Many people have observed that for the typical student, a college degree today is the equivalent of a high school diploma of fifty years ago.

When the Class of 2008 graduates in a few weeks, a lot of the students are going to discover that having the BA credential is no magic charm. Most of them won’t land the sort of alluring job they probably imagined they were qualified for.

Just as we’ve over-encouraged home ownership, with bad results for many borrowers, we have over-encouraged college. For some students, it’s a poor investment.

MJW said...

I find this subject interesting, but I think the picture being presented can be a bit blurred by the types of degree taken. I graduated from a former poly (Liverpool JMU) in 2000 with a 4 year Business degree where the 3rd year was spent as an intern with a blue chip oil company. I had a decent job offer with a second tier ITC market/marketing research consultancy before my finals were complete and started work before I’d actually got my results. It’s only anecdotal evidence but most of the people from my course groups had found work by the time we formally graduated.

On the other hand I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of graduates struggling to get work, but they usually have less vocational but more traditional degrees, often from allegedly more prestigious establishments; ironic as my degree from a former poly is considered less prestigious but seemed to open more doors from employers looking for commercial skills. When I was picked up I was one of 6 or 7 graduates brought into the same department in that intake, all of us had some form of business related degree either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. The other notable factor was that most of us had done some form of internship, so had actually built on our classroom knowledge with real world experience (albeit very junior and poorly paid experience).

My suspicion, based on a general reading of anecdotal evidence, is that having a more traditional academic degree is an advantage if you have a good degree from one of the more prestigious universities, if you have a more traditional degree that is from a less prestigious university, or is graded 2:2 or lower then you may well struggle. In contrast there are advantages in holding some more vocational degrees, even from allegedly less prestigious institutions, although this advantage is based on the commercial viability of the degree. There are plenty of vocational subjects that aren’t valued particularly highly for their commercial applicability, but those that are may open more doors than supposedly more prestigious, academic qualifications.

the patriot said...

Business positions, mostly held by college degree holders, are at an all-time low with a downward spiral of hiring and a dramatic increase in lay-offs. Who is still thriving? The mechanic who fixes your car and the medical assistant who takes your temperature. Yes, these two professions require some schooling, but of a different nature; Technical or vocational schooling, which is typically a two year program and a lot easier on the pocket book than a four year Bachelor's Degree.

Stan Moss said...

Quickly, I'd like to tell you my story.


I have a 2:1 degree AND an MA.
I was struggling for years to get out of my crap casual job.
There were other jobs available, sure. But they were all of a dead-end admin temping nature.

Anything worhy my degree and MA saw me systematically rejected.

Last year, I asked my managers for advice.
They told me in no uncertain terms to stop mentioning my MA. It puts employers off, they told me. Candidly.

I asked advisers at my temping agencies what they thought. They nodded, almost apologetically.
They agreed.

Helen Highwater said...

Can I just add that the pic illustrating this article reminds me of the dangers inherent in working at a university and having to dodge flying mortar boards every summer? I'm still not sure I understand the symbolism of throwing them in the air - it's not like we wear those daft things all through our degree, is it?

claude said...

Helen,
well said ;-)
I fuckin hated that useless gown.
I 'like' the fact that you also had to hire 'one' at the modicum price of £80 a piece...
Me and my mate (who graduated the day before) decided to share it and split the price.
But what happens was that when he graduated and they all threw the silly hat into the air, he then had to pick up any random one from the floor.

It turned out to be massive. Some proper ET-sized blockhead must have worn it, cos on me it was like a balaclava!

And so when I graduated the following day I had to hold it constantly with one hand :-)

Btw, the ceremony was so pompous! Completely at odds with the blase' reality of today's Universities, )mostly)piss-ups, turn-up-when-you-want, wishy washy institutions.

John B said...

"You need to decide whether being 'younger' or 'older' makes you work better or worse and not change your opinion to make it fit the debate accordingly."

Eh? I'm being consistent between the two comments: I completely accept that the older workers in your workplace know how to do their jobs better, are more disciplined and less inclined to move on. I'm suggesting that might be explained by their age, not by their educational status. And that they may have been even more feckless and inept when they were younger than the current lot of graduates.

"Who is still thriving? The mechanic who fixes your car"

True, but who is most shafted of all? The mechanic who makes cars in a factory (50% global sales decline, which has crucified the German and Japanese economies just as badly as the FS crash has crucified ours), who's also got a 2-4 year vocational qualification. And unlike someone with a business degree, he needs to get another completely different qualification in order to get a new job at the same level.

In practical, individual terms I agree pretty much entirely with MJW.

Helen Highwater said...

Oh I'm certain grad ceremonies are just for parents' benefit. We had some boring wank who was given an honorary degree (we didn't even get a celebrity! How rubbish!), and then I nearly slipped over on the carpet coming down the steps from meeting the VC. And my dad laughed. Then I got hit in the eye by the corner of a mortar board. Those things were in shocking condition too, with all that throwing about.

Paul Morden said...

It may seem strange to say I wish I'd never gone to University, but sometimes I really regret I ever did.

Studying media communications for three years left me saddled with £15,000 student loan to pay off and the employment situation is pretty dismal at the moment.

I would've been better off just getting straight into the job market when I was 18.