What shall I do next?

Part 8

What shall I do next? 

University or Bust? Problems with mass university education.

Dave Gardner

Why attending a  university is not necessarily a good thing for every young person and why society needs to limit it.

Roughly 50% of all 18 to 25 year olds go to university. There is a clear path, encouraged by governments and schools, for young people to do A levels and apply for a university place. In return for taking out huge loans to study and to live away from home, the promise is made of a ‘graduate premium’ in earnings. Successive governments have made out an exclusively economic case for university. Go there and you will earn more. The hidden message is easy to infer: don’t go there and you could damage your economic health. It is indeed true that graduates on the whole earn more and are unemployed less during their working lives than non-graduates. Does this mean that the policy of pushing half of our young population into university is correct? In particular, what is the fate of those who cannot or choose not to go to university? Is the policy in their interests?

The decline of manual labour and the growth of technical and bureaucratic occupations has increased the demand for graduates in most western countries. But, apart from specialised areas such as engineering, medicine and nursing, where there are often shortages, many graduates are not prepared for particular occupations. Nevertheless, they find occupations in which they can, to some extent, put to good use their ability to read and process information, write reports, construct computer programs etc. However, there is little evidence that having a university degree significantly increases any general ability to manage projects or solve problems unless they are projects or problems in specific areas such as engineering or geography which the student has studied. As with all policies, in order to assess whether it is right that 50% of the population go to university, one needs to assess the disadvantages as well as the stated advantages of such a policy. This is not usually done. This month I will take a look at the disadvantages.

Problems with university education.

There are plenty of problems with the current system of university education. It receives a disproportionate share of government funding relative to vocational and technical institutions. It generates huge amounts of student debt which has the knock on effect of making it more difficult for graduates to set up households and have families. This problem is made worse by the geographical concentration of demand for graduates in London and the South East. Even when they are not needed for the jobs on offer, the flocking of graduates into London helps to blight the chances of young people who have not got university degrees living in London to get work. Around about 30% of graduates are employed in occupations for which the knowledge and know how that they possess is not needed to efficiently carry out their work. Their degrees serve as a filter for employers to select workers whom they think have an advantage over non-graduates, however dubious such a claim might be. This has far-reaching implications. If you need a degree to get a job that you don’t need a degree to perform then this could be seen as a form of blackmail. Get a degree or go unemployed. It is blackmail in the monetary sense as well. Do a degree and rack up huge amounts of debt. This looks like a huge misallocation of resources. 

In a market-led system young people study for degrees in subjects that interest them, where they think they might get work or where there are places available for study. Such choices correspond only imperfectly with national or even individual needs. But ‘national needs’ also has to be interpreted generously. Just because you are not likely to earn much by doing a degree in drama, does not mean that actors are of no value to the society. This point goes for other subjects as well and it is important not to forget that society also needs well qualified and knowledgeable teachers at all levels of education. But when all this is acknowledged, it still remains the case that a society has an interest in planning the supply of suitably educated people, including graduates and this cannot be left to young people’s choices alone. Some decisions need to be made about supply in relation to likely demand. As LA has argued, the issue is not primarily about money to finance university study, it is rather whether this is the best use of the resources, including human potential, that we can make. The issue of debt is a massive and unnecessary distraction as the state paying for higher education is something it can do easily if it considers it to be a worthwhile investment. Loading young people with debt blights their lives and makes it more difficult for them to form households.  This goes even more for piling debt onto those taking vocational courses as it is now the intention of the government to do. Unlike the case with university degrees, which can be used as a ticket to a wide variety of jobs, vocational qualifications are usually more specialised and so are more risky to undertake than university study. Adding a financial risk will make them less attractive.

It is a tradition in Britain that young people leave home to study for a degree at a university.  This is not the norm in most other European countries. It is argued that this is a necessary part of personal development.  One might ask, if this is indeed the case, why is this opportunity not given to all young people? In fact it is nonsense, a hangover from the monkish origins of Oxford and Cambridge. It may be fun for some to live away from home, but it is not necessary for education. It has the further disadvantage of drawing people away from their communities to which they are unlikely to return. This has the consequence of making it even more difficult than it otherwise might be for communities not in or near university towns to regenerate themselves.

So we can see that there is an economic and social demand for graduates, but that it is also quite likely that we educate more than we really need. This mass university education has the effect of creating huge amounts of debt, of allocating people into inappropriate jobs and blighting the employment chances of those without degrees. It has the potential to stunt the development of areas that do not have a university. Resources devoted to universities could have been better deployed to other forms of education which stand a better chance of improving the lot of working people and their local economies. A university education also seems to produce a particular attitude that embodies a disdain for people who do not share the liberal and detached values that form part of the atmosphere of a university education, that is, disdain for people from the working class. The fact that university educated people have come increasingly to dominate the Labour Party and, to some extent, the trade unions has also led to a growing emotional distance between Labour and its traditional supporters that has sapped away at support for the Labour Party. University education, for whatever reason, has encouraged lifestyle and identity politics and displaced the concerns with economic security and social stability that used to form the bedrock of labour politics. Because of their sheer number and influence, not to mention their close connection to elites who are their alumni, universities have now come to dominate education policy and are capable of distorting it to their advantage. Labour too often gives the impression that it would like all young people to go to university and that it thinks little of alternative routes into adulthood. This further damages the perception of universities among sections of the working class.

So there are plenty of things wrong with government and opposition policies for mass university education. In the next issue we will consider how these problems can be dealt with.

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