It’s that time of year again when parents have packed off their young to university, Breville toastie maker, Morrissey posters and lava lamps included. University means fresh aspirations and a new social life – along with enlightenment, education, debate and discussion. It’s also the starting block of an optimistic youngster’s path to their chosen career, or is it?
I made the most of university. It was the chance to continue studying that famously vocational course, English Literature. It also allowed me to spend a year in Spain in order to study my course – yes, still English Literature – in another cultural context. Thanks to the Erasmus programme (an EU student exchange initiative) and a particularly strong British pound at the time, I lived in and left Spain with minimal debt, a reasonable tan, and a much better ability to confound locals with my verbal skills. In the long-term, and two-and-a-half degrees down, I’m left with sizeable debt, yes. But I’ve been lucky enough to enter into a job which my journalism masters no-doubt helped me secure. So higher education works.
University education is a good thing but it should not be the only road into employment. Why? Because not all jobs require a higher educational qualification. In the UK, governments have doggedly promoted higher education as a springboard towards better salaries, better jobs and better lives. New Labour made it a target to get 50 per cent of school leavers into higher education. Despite good intentions this left supply and demand – graduates looking for graduate jobs – wonky to say the least. Leavers have become over qualified for the jobs available, or qualified with degrees that provide little in the way of what are glibly known to grads as employability skills.
The global economic crisis has worsened the situation. A glance at youth-unemployment rates in Europe’s PIIGS nations makes the security of a university degree seem more ambivalent. In the UK the upshot is that university degrees have been devalued. Trades that never previously needed degrees now demand one. My industry, journalism, seems to have all but lost that old newsroom demographic – the hacks pickled in booze and nicotine who entered Fleet Street at 16 years old are a dying breed. Now you’re in need of a masters to get your foot in the door. These are the problems of today’s employment market – in some sectors there’s a lack of jobs to match newly minted graduates, and in others a graduate oversupply means the skills bar is set impractically high for those without a university education.
Were I to turn back the clock to 2005 – my first year of university – I would do it all again. But for those considering higher education today, before you trawl through the college catalogues and application procedures while considering your government’s aspirational rhetoric, make sure a degree is what you really need to get the job you want.
Aled John is a producer for Monocle 24.