Thursday, 17 May 2012

Dilettante on The Student Journals: Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness Make Poor Reading

For my latest TSJ contribution, I decided to take down a rhetorically frenzied but ill-supported assault on the backgrounds of David Cameron and his cabinet. Good fun, and managed to make it something more productive than a straight-up fisking.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Dilettante in Bullseye: The UK's master class in how not to reform Higher Education

In the latest edition (Issue 48) of the European Democrat Students magazine BullsEye, the theme is 'knowledge is power'. To that end I submitted a piece highlighting the UK's experimentation with higher education policy and making the case that European policy makers should consider it a master class in how not to do it. 

You can either download the PDF here and skip to page 23, or the text is reproduced below.


The UK provides a master class in how not to reform higher education

When European policy makers turn their attention to higher education, they would do well to pay attention to what is happening to universities in the United Kingdom. Because for the past decade or so our country has been engaged on a quite radical experiment with higher education: a drive to get 50% of all school-leavers to progress to university or college before getting a job.

The justifications for this vary from person to person. For some, it was a matter of aspiration – of allowing many more people to enhance their studies, learn new skills and maximise their potential. For others, it was a class-motivated attempt to break open the elite world of the universities. Still more saw it as a way of building a new economy now that global competition had rendered British manufacturing uncompetitive. Others simply saw it as a cynical attempt to keep school-leavers off the unemployment figures for a few years.

This host of competing justifications is symptomatic to why the whole thing has become such a mess: it was started without any clear objectives. It didn’t really get much further than “wouldn’t it be nice if more people went to university?”.

As a result, overqualification rates in the UK are already high and are still rising. The employment market is flooded with graduates, creating a paradox where on the one hand a degree is essential to get a foot in the door, while on the other hand its value is decaying as ever more graduates emerge with similar qualifications.
The number of graduates on the market also means that employers are now using degrees to filter applicants for what used to be school-leavers’ jobs. This means that these jobs are no longer open to people just out of high school and more people are forced to go through university, just to ‘stand still’ in employment terms.

While they go through university, these students take on the burden of tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt from student loans and living costs. This is because the state can no longer afford to totally subsidise students as it did when the numbers were tiny. Tuition fees are now a part of higher education and they will only go higher.

Perhaps worst of all, having a degree in Britain is now seen as being superior to a vocational or technical qualification, even when something is supposed to be a vocation or technical trade. Perhaps the most striking example is nursing, where the mutation of nurse training from ‘hands-on’ to academic has led to reports that a new breed of nurse unwilling to get their hands dirty. Even areas such as pre-school childcare are now seeing increasing calls for graduate recruitment, as if a degree is a magical scroll that guarantees good outcomes.

Taken together, all this has serious implications for the British economy. As the ideological drive to expand higher education goes on, more and more young people are sucked through the system. The debts they incur, combined with the lost income from three to four years of work they miss out on, means that many of our young people are left financially dependent on their parents well into what used to be considered our adult lives.

It has also led to increased disenchantment, as people led to expect the high-earnings and job security of the last generation of graduates find themselves in a world where degrees are common and competition ferocious. It is hard enough to go through university and emerge owing the government tens of thousands of pounds, but when it fails to land you a traditional graduate salary or job prospects the disappointment is fiercer still.

It also leads to a greater sense of entitlement amongst the workforce. The UK already has a problem with native workers refusing to apply for menial or low-status jobs, leaving them to be filled by immigrant labour which is then resented by the very people who never applied for their jobs. This is only exacerbated once 50% or more of British workers have some form of degree and the expectation of a job to match.

When European countries debate how they are going to modify their higher education provision to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, Britain should be used as a salutary lesson in how not to do it. As an increasingly globalised economy subjects jobs in the primary and secondary sectors to increasing competition from overseas, it can be tempting to try to see university as a magic wand.

Most fallaciously, it is claimed that mass university education is necessary in order to ‘equip students with skills’ for a modern economy. Given that the British model almost totally neglects technical areas, one really has to question quite how many History of Art degrees a modern European nation needs to compete in the global economy.

The only way the UK has managed so far is by having the government invent swathes of arcane public sector jobs, with artificially high salaries and extraordinary pensions. This is the reason the UK has such a serious deficit problem: for the last 15 years the government has been borrowing to bridge the gap between the reality of our uncompetitive economy and the shrill entitlements of its people. Now the money has run out, the wheels are coming off.

There are many good reasons to invest in education beyond the age of 18, from making sure the nation has enough engineers, to contributing to scientific breakthroughs which advance the limits of knowledge, even to ensure a sufficient number of lawyers, historians, and a poet or two.

But take it from someone who lived it: “Wouldn’t it be nice?” is not one of those reasons.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dilettante on 5 Live: The state of the Coalition

So blogging is still light while I settle in and try to find a paying job - should have a few pieces up next week.

In the mean time, I did I short bit for the Tony Livesey show about Cameron and Clegg's 'Rose Garden II' moment, which can be found here. Skip to the 40 minute mark to here me and Lib Dem Voice co-Editor Stephen Tall.