Friday, 11 June 2010

The problem with new graduates

By coincidence, the subject raised in Mr Stan's latest missive cropped up in conversation today when I chewed the fat with a couple of old friends. Mr Stan pointed out the futility of pushing up to fifty percent (by number, not amputation) of young people into university and saddling them with huge debts to pay for course fees and maintenance costs and he proposed a way out. The friends I was talking to included a chap in his forties whose son has just finished a degree in International Studies, or something like.

I recall talking to the boy about it before he went to an obscure midlands Polytechnic that used to specialise in engineering draughtsmanship until it pretended to be a university and started creaming in fees for courses in waffly nonsense. It doesn't offer courses in engineering draughtsmanship any more, that would be far too useful. He explained that the course concentrated on the study of international organisations like the UN and its many sub-constructs. It seemed to me to be just the sort of thing you should pay for if you want to waste three years of your life. But I digress.

The boy's father said his son was about to graduate and had been looking for work. The positions he seemed likely to be able to fill were just the sorts of jobs he could have obtained three years ago as a school-leaver with A-levels. Of course he is not an 18 year-old with A-levels he is a 21 year-old with a degree, yet his starting rung on the ladder of work appears to be what it was three years ago.

This doesn't surprise me because the "old-fashioned" demarcation between "graduate jobs" and "non-graduate jobs" was based on substance not pieces of paper. Some jobs required young people whose brains had been extended by true academic study so that they had something extra to offer by reason of their advanced education. That is not to say that others could not move into those positions by proving themselves to have the wherewithal despite not having had the formal academic training, but the job required an extended mind so graduates were the first port of call for the employer. It presupposed that a university degree in certain subjects would equip the graduate with the necessary skills. Employers learned over time which universities and courses produced people best suited for junior positions in their businesses. I do not ignore that any degree course will provide a graduate with knowledge he or she would not otherwise have but acquiring knowledge is different from brain-training.

I suppose it is inevitable that having more people going to university will not change job prospects very much. After all the presence of more graduates cannot create new "graduate jobs". The same jobs are available whether the applicants have been to university or not because businesses need what they need and those needs do not change when more applicants have more certificates.

Two rather unfortunate consequences flow from this. One is that graduates, like my friend's son, find they are no better placed than they were when they left school; indeed they are in a worse position because they now have heavy debts to pay off. The other is that many first degrees are not valued by employers any greater than they value A-levels, so youngsters with first degrees in nonsense from the new wave of quasi-universities are under pressure to commit more money and more time to obtaining a Master's degree in the hope that it will provide an edge when the time for work comes. That is the course my friend's son is minded to follow because his first degree appears to give him no advantage over a school-leaver.

The other friend involved in the conversation has a granddaughter who has been offered a job provided she completes a Master's degree. Ten years ago that job would have required only a 2:2 Bachelor's degree but now everyone seems to receive a 2:1 or First so the prospective employer has upped the stakes. She and/or her parents will incur another £15,000 of debt in order for that extra degree to be obtained.

Except in the fields of work in which specialist qualifications are required we seem to be approaching a position in which most bachelor's degrees from most universities carry no more weight than A-levels. I find it desperately sad to hear of graduates working in call centres or as junior managers in fast food outlets. The sadness is not in the fact that the particular people are in those particular jobs, they might be exactly the right jobs for them. The sadness is in the false expectation generated in the teenagers who have been pumped into universities.

"Get a degree and you'll get a better job" is patent nonsense, although it was exactly the lie told to justify the last government's target of half the country going to university. There is no sea of unfilled jobs that can only be filled if there are more graduates. Nor are there very many positions in which a degree will allow a junior employee to perform better than he would had he started at eighteen and worked at it for three years rather than being at university for that period.

I have known my friend's son since he was one year old. He is not academically gifted. He's far from thick but he could never do a job that required someone clever. He wants a "graduate job" because he is a graduate. He will be disappointed, all the more so for having a student loan to repay when he finally starts work. My other friend's granddaughter is academically gifted. She already has the qualification to do the job she wants to do, but because the market is flooded with young people with degrees she has to spend another year and a lot of money getting a qualification she does not need.

It's a real dog's breakfast. It's also a classic example of the consequences of government seeking short-term popularity by promising benefits it could never deliver. The result is not young people springing into splendidly well payed jobs that did not exist before, it is young people doing the same job they would always have done but starting it later and with thousands of pounds of debt around their neck.


energybalance said...

I witnessed the transformation of the "university" system first hand. I resigned my chair and wrote a satirical novel about it(among other things I have done since):

For this is exactly what it has become.


Chris Rhodes.

Pogo said...

Frankly, I don't think that the last government gave a toss about "promising benefits they could not deliver". I see it as a cynical move to get a goodish percentage of three-years' worth of school-leavers off the unemployment register.

TheFatBigot said...

It's good to hear from you again Professor Balance.

Mr Pogo, I agree with what you say but they could not get votes by saying "we are massaging the unemployment figures". It has to be massaged with a promise of benefits - their explicit line was that graduates earn on average 8% more than on-graduates. The silly Hodge woman pushed exactly that line on Question Time a few years ago. Their real motivation might have been reducing unemployment statistics but they held out false hope for young people and deluded them into incurring wholly avoidable and unnecessary debt.

Mark Wadsworth said...

TFB, completely agreed that supply and demand have been pushed way out of balance, to the overall detriment of everybody, as a I said here.

Chalcedon said...

Ah yes, graduates in academically demanding and rigorous subjects from a Russel Group university get 18% plus higher salaries is much closer to the truth. Only between 5%-10% should be able to go to university and take a degree. They are supposed to be difficult. Others who wish to study for a more vocational course should opt for a poly. converting them into spurious universities was folly and created far too high a set of expectations amongst their student intake. Employers are not fooled by a B Sc in golf green management, 1st Class Hons from Scumbag university compared with a 1st in Natural Sciences from Trinity college, Cambridge.

As you say the employer treats these kids as not having a degree and they are older, more expensive to employ and have a zonking debt. Medicine is still one of the best degrees to obtain as it guarantees a job (or it used to) and a variety of futher opportunities. These aspuring young grads should look at the competition there and then have a hard look at what a new university is offering.