Why this year's freshers are just part of a failed experiment
Higher education is pumping out people with degrees into a jobs market that doesn't need them. It's blighting lives---and undermining the university system itself
Aditya Chakrabortty The Guardian, Monday 23 September 2013 15.00 EDT
Freshers, let's come clean: you are the latest batch of guinea pigs in an experiment that has already largely failed.
You've probably clocked the failure. You might have read about the Birmingham graduate despatched to stack shelves and clean floors in Poundland ? for free. Or about how one in 10 students coming out of some Oxford colleges are still unemployed six months later. Or the official admission that, of the class of 2012 who have got a job, a third are in sectors that don't even require a degree.
British universities are producing more graduates than ever before. There's just one snag: there aren't the jobs for them to take up. And that's not only down to the economic slump, terrible though that is, but because of a political gamble by governments of right and left ? one which will leave large numbers of young people indebted and underemployed.
From John Major onwards, successive leaders have flogged higher education as if it were some kind of personal and national cure-all. For Tony Blair, domestic politics all came down to the chant: "Education, education, education". According to the current universities minister, David Willetts, "Universities transform lives." Whether Labour or Tory, ministers shared some big assumptions about the value of a degree: that graduates get better jobs and have higher incomes; and that having more graduates helps countries grow faster and compete internationally.
The great game for Britain and other developed economies was to increase what was called "human capital": the employability of its workforce. Even if you agreed with these narrowly instrumental criteria by which to judge learning, that still left one glaring problem: where were these better jobs going to come from? Politicians focused on offering up newly minted BAs and BScs to the private sector, blithely assuming that it would provide suitable opportunities. Even the most addled casualty of freshers' week could have spotted the flaw in that plan.
Yet over the past couple of decades we've seen a big experiment in manufacturing more graduates. In 1989, 19% of school-leavers went into higher education; now it's over 40%. The politicians have got what they wanted: a generation clad in capes and mortarboards. But those leaving higher education have not got what politicians promised: the jobs to go with their qualification.
In his speeches, Willetts argues that getting a degree means higher wages. Much higher wages. "The typical graduate earns £31,000 a year as against £19,000 a year for a non-graduate." Were those claims about the "graduate premium" printed on a roadside billboard, I doubt the Advertising Standards Authority would let them stand.
Who is Willetts's "typical graduate"? Is it the mathmo from Magdalen who's already lined up a place at Goldman Sachs, or the would-be social worker fresh out of the University of East London? According to a 2011 paper commissioned and published by Willetts's own office, the department for business, a man who comes out of university with a BA in history or philosophy will earn an average of only 2.3% a year more than if he'd gone straight into the labour market. If he studies creative arts and design, he'd be 1% worse off.
Britain now has a generation of expensively educated graduates ? without the graduate work for them to do. Instead, faced with all this surplus talent, employers who previously didn't ask for a degree now demand one. Nursing, policing, hotel management: these sectors now hire from university. Spicerhaart, the lettings agent, has its own graduate-training scheme. Only firsts and 2:1s need apply; stick it out for two years, and you can manage a local lettings agency.
A 2008 study by Francis Green and Yu Zhu at the University of Kent found that a third of graduates were "overqualified", doing work that wouldn't usually require a university degree. One out of every 10 graduates was "really overqualified" ? doing a job that didn't use any of their costly university training.
The people who end up in these careers know they've drawn the short straw. Interviewing 37 graduates from a mix of disciplines, Belgin Okay-Somerville at Aberdeen and Dora Scholarios at Strathclyde found that over half landed up on what one called "the wrong foot". They had typically got a job, but it wasn't the fast-track, high-flying position promised on graduate milk-rounds. Instead, they were doing routine work, usually without much training and often on temporary or insecure contracts. "Rubbish jobs", the graduates called them, "frustrating". One told the academics: "It's got mundane very quickly."
Once they were locked into this trajectory, it was difficult to get out. According to Okay-Somerville, a graduate on the wrong foot could expect to bob from crap position to crap position: from selling tickets, to being an HR assistant to redundancy. And on and on for years.
University isn't just about getting a job, you might retort. I couldn't agree more. But that's what the political class has reduced it to. All the stuff that makes learning worthwhile ? broadening one's horizons, having daft but heavy arguments with new friends ? all that just gets lip service from ministers. And in turn, they've shaped an higher-education system that allows less and less space for speculation and taking intellectual risks. How are you meant to do that when three years at uni can now easily cost 50 grand, and you need to do one or two part-time jobs to pay the rent? What you're left with now increasingly looks like the degree factories the critics always warned against ? only without the degree-level jobs to go alongside them.