Who needs a degree anyway?

August is the cruellest month.  Once commentators would rush out to decry the qualifications that young people had taken.  This was obviously cruel. Now the game is to point at the next choices for the young people, and decry that.  A perfect time for the More Means Worse contingent.

So, before we even got underway we had the claim that ‘millions’ of graduates don’t get graduate jobs. This doesn’t stack up, of course, as I’ve recently said.  But then comes a helpful report published by CIPD that opens the opportunity to recycle this all over again.  This report looks at the skills of graduates, the occupations they have and calculates a gap.  Further work is needed, the authors conclude, as it is hard to tell whether graduates change the jobs that they are now doing by virtue of their skills.  It’s a careful report, looking for further work and a rebalancing of attention from that given to higher education to all pathways to employment.  They cite Alison Wolf, but they could as easily have cited Ed Milliband who wanted attention given to the other 50% not going to university.

But, careful reports on educational policy aren’t released on the sixth day after ‘A’ level results in order to get a careful debate, they’re released to get headlines.

At first, we had reports on the conclusion that “Most graduates ‘in non-graduate jobs’ “ but that was just a prelude to the columnists warming up.

First up Julia Hartley-Brewer who compiles a tremendous straw man argument in her University was never meant to be for everybody” piece for the Telegraph.  In order to distinguish her case from actual facts in the real world, she invents a ‘fairy story’ about the 50% going to university (actually having some higher education before 30) policy.  Then she moves straight into all degrees are not the same territory:

A third class degree from the London Metropolitan University in “Media Studies and Communication” is not, whatever your careers adviser might tell you, worth the same as a First in law from Cambridge.

Well, yes. The aims of those courses would be pretty different, but they are both degrees – and, actually, you’ve a good chance that you’ll find more people from Media and Communications (there’s no ‘studies’ in the London Met course title) getting jobs in Media than law graduates from Cambridge in the legal professions. A Law degree is not alone a qualification for practice – it’s a poor comparator to use.

Then we round off with an appeal to good old-fashioned elitism –

The answer is simple: limit the number of university places to, say, 25 or 30 per cent of young people, and to require all publicly funded degrees to have some intellectual or professional value…

We don’t need to worry why 25% would be a good number, or whether all degrees do indeed have intellectual or professional value (or both).  There’s clearly something in this elitism argument – is it’s pretty much the same as Jeremy Paxman’s one.

But, this CIPD report is too good an opportunity to waste on having just one More Means Worse column, so the Telegraph gives us another, this time from Martin Vander Weyer on Devalued degrees have let our country down.  Again, expansion is the target and the ‘soft degrees’ at former polytechnics.  Here the market is the problem: why are students not taking modern languages or computing degrees – it must be a market failure.  The market has also failed to close any of these ‘poor’ universities – and so we are exhorted to have a review, no doubt to push the market harder so it behaves in the pre-determined way its supposed to.

Naturally, this reaction to the CIPD could also wait for the weekend columnists to rehash it.  Peter Hitchins manages to assemble his non sequiturs so as to be entirely inconsistent, saying that elites have to be elite:

Last week we learned that the alleged universities which so many children strive to enter give them no benefits. Even the few genuinely elitist colleges cannot any longer guarantee a future for their products. Years later, many thousands of graduates are toiling away at jobs they could have got – and done – without spending three years getting into lifelong debt which will, in many cases, never be repaid.

But then complaining that we have to import professionals like nurses (who are being educated in those universities) and low-skilled workers.  So it’s not clear whether the problem is that we are educating too many people with higher skills or not enough. Where does it say that university has to be elite?

Both the Robbins and Dearing reports started their consideration of policy with the aims of higher education.  By the time of Browne, the fee reforms and the subsequent White Paper, we had assumed we knew what higher education is for – it’s to prepare students for employment.  But is higher education just for jobs? Certainly university marketing departments have hitched themselves to that aim (with taglines such as The Career University).  So we can’t expect not to be judged on that criteria.  The DLHE doesn’t do many favours for presenting data on the medium term gains for students in terms of life chances enabled by higher education, and as we travel this career path we must find ways to argue this better. Not least to avoid subsequent cruel months where the More Means Worse types can have their own go at devaluing higher education.


 (updated to include Peter Hitchins’ very similar take on this)


One thought on “Who needs a degree anyway?

  1. Pingback: August is the cruellest month | moremeansbetter

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