Is a degree just the job?

The official line is that universities should equip students with work skills. But in a fast-changing world, people need a broader grounding for life.

by Richard Reeves, who may be contacted at:richard@richard-reeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What do you say to a sociology graduate with a job? 'Can I have fries with that, please?' An old joke. An unfair one, too. It is simply not true that all sociology graduates end up flipping burgers. According to the most recent survey, only one in seven were working as 'retail, catering, waiting and bar staff'. (This compares, however, to just under one in 10 for graduates as a whole.)

But as the numbers entering higher education rise - 43% now enrol on an HE course before they turn 30 - the question 'What is a degree for?' is being asked with greater urgency. A university education used to signal membership of the intellectual elite of the nation. But as we enter an era of mass higher education, this can, by definition, no longer be the case.

It's clear that there is frustration among graduates themselves. This is not new: Edward Gibbon, the historian, described his time at Oxford as 'the 14 months ... most idle and unprofitable of my whole life'. Yet he managed to write one of the greatest works of history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Today's problem is that the economy cannot create challenging 'graduate' jobs as fast as the colleges can churn them out. This means that if degrees are sold as the short-cut to power, money and glory, someone will be disappointed.

One in three graduates 'regret' their degree choice, according to a survey by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). Disturbingly, most of these wished they had studied something 'more relevant' to the business world. As Victoria Winkler, CIPD training adviser, put it: 'The findings show that, on reflection, many graduates would study a subject that relates directly to business or that will better equip them with skills that are transferable into the workplace.'

It's hard to imagine a more depressingly narrow, defeatist description of higher education than 'transferable skills'. But this is the official line: Government ministers bang on about the 'needs of the future labour market' and employer bodies demand 'market-relevant skills'. For politicians and companies, higher education is not the last chance to bathe in learning, but the first training ground in the global economic competition.

If a good job is the end product of university life, and more graduates are competing for each job, it's easy to see why they might become resentful if an apparently good degree is not a trump card in the labour market. One anguished graduate wrote on the BBC news website: 'I studied politics at Aberdeen University in the late 1990s. I recently read a study which suggested that men who study for a politics degree earn no more over their working lives than men who do not go to university. This is bourne out by my own circumstances, where I have found the degree of little practical use in the job market.' (What is borne out by his experience, of course, is that employers prefer people who can spell.)

This is what happens when degrees are seen as advance tickets to the boardroom. Although a degree may be a signal of certain abilities - reasoning, analysis, communication - it's no guarantee of them.

But given the relentless drive towards the vocationalisation of education, it's not surprising that students are wishing they had spent three years studying balance sheets and the workings of the marketing triangle, instead of 'wasting' them on Homer or Hume. Already, three times as many students are enrolled on a business studies course as those studying either history or philosophy. Who can blame them? Even the former education secretary Charles Clarke has said: 'There's something dodgy about the idea of "learning for its own sake".'

Some brave souls are striving against this insidious trend. Many university careers advisers lament the narrowing of their own role into recruiting sergeants for the economy. Some insist on seeing the aim of university as preparation for a flourishing life rather than just a profitable career. Paul Brown, head of careers at St Andrews University, has written a paper urging his colleagues to use Aristotle's eudaimonia - which he rightly summarises as 'a happy life in the very broadest sense' - as the lodestar for their work. Such voices are rare, however, and are set against an officially sanctioned view of undergraduates as units of future human capital.

There are two problems with the idea that degrees are career qualifications. For a start, the half-life of skills is shrinking so quickly that any skills learned at college will be useless shortly after leaving it. Employers and ministers agree that we must all be ever-ready to learn new ones. Yet they insist that young people spend three precious years acquiring them anyway.

More profoundly, it is surely those studying a subject for the love of it rather than as a career move who are most likely to acquire the really vital skills. What employers need are people who are intellectually flexible and confident, who can learn quickly, and who have a broad view of the world. An enthusiastic, engaged study of Renaissance art or 17th-century philosophy will enhance the personal and intellectual capacity of a student more significantly than a career-based pursuit of a more 'relevant' subject. The tragedy of the instrumentalist view of higher education is not only that it shrivels the true value of university life but that it also fails on its own terms.

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