Posts Tagged ‘transferrable skills’

The Secret Alternative to Graduate Unemployment

In Opinion on March 8, 2012 at 8:28 PM

Recent Office for National Statistics figures show that around a fifth of recent graduates are currently  unemployed.

It is true that unemployment in general – and supposedly substandard employment – has risen sharply over the last five years,  from around 5.2% before the recession to approximately 7.9% when the recession, officially at least, ended in 2009. But the downturn is undeniably being more keenly felt by graduates. Perhaps even more worrying are the figures covering, if you will, that-will-do employment or semi-employment. A third of recent graduates were in jobs described as ‘non-graduate’ by the end of 2011 (calendar year).  This probably means bar work, supermarket work, work with one’s dad’s building firm and such like ‘for the time being’. Also, officially unemployment doesn’t include anything considered education or training such as PGCEs, NCTJs or internships (or part-time work), which although usually very useful, often don’t put food on the table as they are ultimately paid little, nothing, or even paid for. Also, those in temporary/voluntary work whilst travelling abroad on post-uni gap years are presumably classed as ‘employed’, or the respondents are just unavailable for contact.

Can new graduates realistically expect the employment prospects of old?

The figures do show that the typical wage is far greater for graduates than non-graduates – £15 per hour compared to just under £9. However, the relatively rosy picture these statistics paint hides inconvenient truths. The former statistic at least (the most important one in this regard because of its greater historical variability) is based on graduates aged anything between 21 and 64. This includes baby-boomers, such as my dear ‘rents, who went to university in what could accurately be described as a golden era. Universities were, I gather, flourishing in the liberal and liberated intellectual bohemia brought about by the free-loving, intoxicated 60s (or, universities were a place for the arseoisie, if you’re more cynical. Stephen Fry, in The Fry Chronicles, brilliantly describes how his world of Cambridge in the mid-70s could, to an outsider, reasonably seem one of insufferably self-righteous, prententious, layabout tosspottery, before passionately justifying that particular world from his insider view as an aforesaid ‘tosspot’.) This culture remains somewhat, but, for better or for worse, has been largely watered (or, perhaps lagered) down with the vastly increased numbers going to university. As well as, of course, the onslaught of Carnages, social media sites, game consoles and all that fun shit.

Anyway I digress. Which university experience comes out on top – that of yesteryear or today – is debatable. But what isn’t is that university was, for those who went, a far better deal back then. Students didn’t have to pay tuition fees and many even got generous maintenance grants from Local Education Authorities to pay for rent, books and food (and booze). And the graduate job market was better. This is largely because far fewer people went to university. So, to employers, basically everyone was, in theory at least, a bright spark and hard-working almost by definition of being there.

And, not wanting to become overly Daily Mail about this, not only were the degrees worth more, there was far less competition among those who had them. According to my parents and their university friends, a 2.1 was almost a guarantee of any desired job. And it shows with their careers. With mostly humanities degrees from Reading (i.e. a decent but not outstanding university), they have gone into successful, well-paid and fulfilling careers in, among other things, agriculture management, journalism, urban planning, academia, psychotherapy, occupational therapy and teaching (several as heads of department or even schools). My mum is the one in occupational therapy and says that her rather left-field step in moving from a German degree pretty much straight into occupational therapy was not out of the ordinary. So, essentially, the figures are skewed by inclusion of this generation of university graduates. I suspect if surveys took a cross-section of students under 30, the results would be quite different.

And although graduate pay may be higher, the statistics don’t account for the fact that students will have to pay back a lot of debt, and non-graduates will have anything from three to seven years of earning behind them by the time graduates graduate (depending on whether the non-grads did A-level; the grads, gap years or four-year courses etc. etc.)

In short, the graduate job market is pretty shit. With the figures bandied around on the number of applicants for every graduate position ranging between anything from 40-70, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone say differently, not least current or recent students. The question is what – if anything – to do about it.

Liam Byrne, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This is grim news for Britain’s graduates. We have to stop this becoming a lost generation. The Government needs to change course and create more growth and jobs.” And TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has called for an ‘industrial strategy’ to buck the trend of graduates being forced into low-skilled jobs – that government should focus on boosting high-value industries such as manufacturing. “Otherwise public investment in education and the talents of graduates will continue to be wasted,” he added. On the other side, Employment Minister Chris Grayling blamed the current situation on Labour policy: “As well as paying for the enormous debt left behind, young people are struggling to get into work despite the billions Labour has squandered on schemes such as the New Deal and the Future Jobs Fund,” he said.

They all have reasonable arguments, but I feel nearly everyone is missing the elephant in the room here. Everyone seems to be thinking along the lines of right, we’ve got this situation; how do we deal with it?!(With the current answer being triple students’ fees.) Personally, I feel that not enough are asking if the current situation with universities is just ridiculous.

Labour’s 50% (of young people at university) target was undeniably a well-intentioned, progressive one. In actual fact, it ostensibly hasn’t had much effect. In 2001, when they made the declaration, the percentage of young people going to university was 39.2 and its peak was only 39.8 around seven years later (it stands at around 36% now). Maybe, though, their emphasis on higher education did keep it at that level, rather than it drop off.

It stems from the idea that everyone should have the right to go to university. Again this is admirable, but I think misguided. The classic idea of university is that it is for the elite in particular academic fields. While in the past it has perhaps been too elite, there was at least the job market to support it. This is far less the case now, and largely as a consequence, there is a strong argument that we’ve gone too far the other way.  The word ‘elite’ has very negative connotations nowadays, usually relating to money, but there is nothing necessarily wrong with academic elitism. Certainly, if you apply the same logic to the job market it seems faintly ridiculous; an unsuccessful applicant claiming a company was elitist for not employing him. Now I know this is a ridiculous comparison because it ignores the complex socio-economic factors inherent in UK education, particularly secondary, but it bears thinking about for a point of reference.

The thinking behind the 50% rule is to stop elitism, but ironically I think it can do the opposite. Inherent in the mad rush to get people to university (see for one secondary school tables on people doing so) is the idea that university is almost the singular, golden path to prosperity. Current figures suggest this is far from the case. And, personally at least, this idea renders it somewhat a failure on the part of a person who doesn’t go to university.

A bit strong I hear you say, but take this instance as an example. In my last year at university, I got onto this Student Associates Scheme through Canterbury Christchurch University, which was intended as a little 15-day taster/experience of teaching for students like me looking to go into teacher training the following (academic) year. They paid the university that gave the lectures and did the admin, the placement school and the student (£600, too, for three weeks light work, which was very nice). The ulterior motive was for ‘ambassadors’ like myself to encourage students to go to university, which I thought was piled on far too strongly, and I’m proud to say, in my placement write up, I bit the hand that – thankfully – still fed me. Anyway, in one of the lecture days, the lecturer said: “So, what would you say to Gary who came up to you and said Yehh, I’m going to work in my dad’s plumbing firm and I could be earning £25,000 in two year’s time.” I knew the answer he wanted from people – and indeed got from some sycophants – that you tell Gary about the enriching university experience, the ways to pay back money, the (supposedly) brilliant career benefits bla bla fucking bla. But I turned to my friend next to me and gave my – sincere – answer: “Good for you, Gary. Good luck.”

This is indicative of a lot of thinking on education. Supposedly it is elitist not to encourage people to like this hypothetical ‘Gary’ to go to university, but surely it is more elitist to suggest that plumbing – hischosen career path, no less – is not a worthwhile line of work. It stems from a culture I certainly grew up in, and I know many others did too. It is one whereby reading some books (or just chapters of), dragging oneself out of bed at 12 to discuss Plato, and writing a few essays to get a 2.1 – or to a lesser extent 2.2 – is an end in and of itself. And one where it is taken as a given that if you’re decent at school, you go to university and then work out what you want to do when there. But for many – myself included – drinking and playing football (separately…usually) on weekday afternoons isn’t going to provide a silver-lined epiphany illustrating a perfect – and feasible – career path. It just makes one long to do that shit forever. In fairness, I did get my act together in third year and did some productive stuff that helped land me a PGCE, though more through a sense of obligation than genuine desire. (Turned out I was pretty shit at the teaching lark, so packed it in and now in journalism – kind of.)

N.B. I must point out here the above description of university as fun, semi-useful and pretty easy, in addition to being exaggerated a little for effect, is predominantly shaped by my experience of my Philosophy and Religious Studies degree and by my friends, many of whom also did humanities degrees, Kent being strong for that shizzle. However, I recognise many degrees are very demanding and difficult, so realise my perception doesn’t apply to all. If you don’t think it does to you, it (probably) doesn’t.

I am broadly speaking against the tuition fee hike, because I don’t think people should be placed with such a financial burden for honestly endeavouring to better themselves (and by extension society), which personally is the general outcome – or at least intention – for most students. Also, that this financial burden will probably hit the poorer harder, thus exacerbating the UK’s already poor record on social mobility. However, one good thing to come out of it, even if it is a malign effect, may be that people will start really thinking about the practicalities of going to university, and working and applying for jobs when they get there. Rather than just going there to casually chat some bollocks about Nietzsche, drink and play tennis (in case you haven’t guessed, that’s a harsh but not entirely unfair self-reflection). If this happened, universities would have to be more responsive to and accountable for student needs; more contact hours, more individual supervision, clear, accurate figures on university/course employment upon completion, and useful careers services. Essentially, going to university would become more of a consumer experience.

This culture of UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY is evidenced by the (impressed) surprise that greeted the three people who, straight from A-level, did the journalism course I recently completed. Journalism is a profession broadly regarded as one requiring a university education, and accordingly the vast majority were recent university leavers like myself. But there’s nothing to suggest this need be the case. These three were ostensibly at least on the same step of the career ladder as those three or four years older than them and, if anything, having the fortitude and single-mindedness to jump straight into journalism – and for some, move to London – could appear more appealing in a prospective job candidate when compared with a candidate who has arguably bided their time learning soft skills at university. One of three is now a journalist in Westminster.

And the case is similar with a lot of other professions. Granted, teaching, medicine, law and engineering are fields that pretty much, if not completely, require a university degree. But many others that are commonly held so don’t require one. For example, media, business, recruitment, accountancy, design, events management, and the array of creative industries such as fashion, art, acting, music and filmmaking. With employers requiring ever more practical work experience, it may be wise for people wishing to work in these professions to forgo uni and start at the bottom of these professions, working their way up by increasing experience and contacts. After all, many of their contemporaries will start in roughly the same position they did in three or four years later anyway.

All this arguably reduces many degrees to  fun but very costly and only semi-useful rites of passage. In fact, as poncy as it may sound, I really think there are significant advantages to the ‘uni experience’ – living away from home, dealing with bills and dickish housemates; pursuing one’s passion/s in the vast network of student clubs and societies (if not the subject itself); getting a taste of professional life in the running of these; and of course the drinking. It is also great for meeting people. On the practical side – providing you don’t lock yourself in your room – there is basically a ready-made network of contacts which can be called upon in later professional life. And on the social side, many find a new home for the foreseeable future or even life and meet life-long friends or partners.

So, university has its pros and cons. What we need to do is be more scrupulous of them. And this applies to all parties – government, parent, and (prospective) student. Government and parent need to stop pretending a university education is a golden ticket to a dream job and thus pushing children into it against their will (though this applies far more to the Labour government…hell, with the tuition fees the Coalition are arguably more pushing people away). And they need to look into better supporting – financially and/or emotionally – non-graduate career routes such as apprenticeships. And students, in a competitive job market, need to better research prospective universities and courses, and have clearer plans with regard to their career and what they can do at university in aid of their career (or at least be honest if they just want to go university to drink). For, as much as it often seems they don’t, academically able youngsters do have a choice. Whisper it, they can just not go to university…

Joel Durston