Last week figures were published by Eurostat suggesting that Scotland was better educated than anywhere else in Europe, measured by proportion of the population educated up to degree level for every year between 2011 and 2019.
However, even during my teaching career I became suspicious of the “maximise the number of graduates” policy.
There were several reasons for this.
1. when it all kicked off in the middle 80s, one important reason was to contribute to mopping up as much youth unemployment as possible – a more intellectual YOP perhaps? My first Prof – Peter Sloane, who eventually became Dean of Social Sciences at Aberdeen – used to tell me that if student:staff ratios got above 12:1 then HE as we knew it was done. While I am sure he himself presided over much worse than this even at Aberdeen, there is a limit, and at one point at what was then Paisley College in the late 80s, the ratio was 38:1 for Marketing (I wasn’t in Marketing, but it wasn’t much better in the areas I taught in). So, one cause was opportunism rather than a conversion to the notion of a well-educated population.
2. But, of course, there had to be a justification beyond “we don’t want all these young folks wandering the streets”, and Mummy and Daddy Middle Class weren’t going to have their wee Johnny or Jenny on YOP – and of course it was such as them Thatcher was looking to in order to keep her in power. The justification was in Michael Porter’s “The competitive advantage of nations”. Porter is (or was) the sort of consultant who didn’t demean himself working for large corporations – his game was working for governments. In this book, one of the things he argued was that having a high number of graduates was associated with a high level of economic performance – pointing inter alia to an early stage Silicon Valley. Ergo, have lots of graduates have a vibrant economy. Except this isn’t the only way to consider this issue.
Let’s accept that Porter’s statement is correct – that vibrant economies have lots of graduates – but did having a high number of graduates make the economy vibrant? OR – and call me cynical but this is my bet – a vibrant economy needs graduate level employees, so the kids see the openings and get themselves off to university. In short, having lots of graduates, of and by itself, won’t make the economy vibrant. It might be a necessary condition but it sure isn’t sufficient.
I remember a colleague getting into bother (and for the record, no it was NOT me) for writing a letter to the press, which included the “joke”, “what do you say to a new graduate?” “Big Mac and fries please”. If demand and growth in the economy is inadequate to make use of the number of graduates produced (hopefully in the right disciplines – do we produce enough Engineers and Scientists for instance – but that’s an argument for another day) then frankly the system we have in place is just a cruel hoax. Why for instance did we produce all these new teachers last year when there were 80 something full time jobs? Glasgow CC wasn’t even taking names for its supply list!
3. But of course that number of students wasn’t easily sustainable, which has justified the change to fees, in England at least, with kids paying anything up to 10k a year for three years. One curiosity is that government expenditure hasn’t changed that much. While fees are “paid” by students, other than for the very well-heeled they are paid by a loan, which is put up by the government – but, unlike University expenditure this is a loan to the student to be repaid by them, so doesn’t count toward deficit or debt. However, if it follows the experience of student loans, a good deal won’t ever be repaid, which is the final proof of my point 2 – following the optimistic version of the Porter thesis presumed that students would come out to the embrace of employers desperate to employ them and paying them for stable jobs. Aye right. Rather graduates came out to a much colder and difficult world than the one they have been sold. Some will do just fine. Many more will struggle, be laden with debt which they will struggle to repay (if they ever do). And of course, you gotta go to Uni – it’s good for school stats innit?
All of this drives me to the view that the number of people at university as the gold standard for all is wrong, inappropriate and in many cases just cruel.
When I started in HE my office was next to a guy who wrote learned articles on how an HE market would work more efficiently than the managed market we had at the time. That students “knew” what they wanted to do better than the Scottish Office which at that time set not just the number of places a University or Central Institution could take on in any year, but it also specified in which disciplines – so Economics, Sociology, Biology, Civil Engineering could all take on their specified numbers of students AND NO MORE.
The counter argument – and the policy we have now – is that students will respond to the vacancies they see and take University courses as appropriate. Uhm, yeh, sure. So now we have loads of students in Media Studies but not enough Engineers. The justification now is “personal responsibility” so when a young graduate ends up with no job, it’s their fault. It’s gas lighting on an industrial scale.
Moreover, do we have enough school leavers being trained at “technician level” – so folk like electricians, plumbers etc.? These are unlikely to make an economy vibrant – BUT you try running a vibrant economy without them. These are the people who actually do the work, and we have done two things. First, we have made clear that they should be aspiring to the next level up irrespective of their capacity to profit (whether in the sense of learning or reward). Secondly that their skills are valued less (well not until you have to employ a plumber/ heating engineer).
While having more graduates may make us the most educated in Europe, can we say that we are the most appropriately educated in Europe? Do we have too many graduates? Too many in the wrong subjects? Do we have enough technician grade graduates trained to a high enough level?
I don’t doubt the difficulty of this – there must be easier ways to get voted out than to tell the middle class that their kids might not go to University (which btw since it should be based on ability means the middle class will work as never before to hothouse their kids and put pressure on teachers to make sure they ‘attain their full potential’ – often defined by mum and dad!)
Likewise, this will not go down well in the Universities – cue cries of outrage among the Principals who have had years of pursuing their own megalomaniac projects and want to continue to do so. Being told that their student numbers are being cut to facilitate increases at technician level which would be something for the FE sector to get on with (though you never know with Universities – BSc Plumbing?) is not what they want to hear. Emphasising student choice is all very well, but the great majority of students are at university for one reason and one reason only – to get a job at the end of it all. This is something to remember when universities complain of cuts as philistinism – there is a lot of that in the universities as well!
Then we have to ask where we get the estimates for expected jobs in the future. Will the employers help? If you think I have been cynical so far, prepare for an even higher level. Too many employers have a time perspective which gets them to the end of the week, most weeks. How many doing job X will you all need in five years will be met by blank stares and comments about pointy heads. Will they be involved in training the students, giving them work experience for instance? My own encounters with employers convinces me that they expect a Business graduate to turn up the finished article – that he or she will know the kind of processes used, the financial control system used in that company. They’ve paid their taxes why do they need to do further training to address the gaps left by those bloody useless University lecturers. The idea that in a class of even just 50, there will be 50 graduates all going off to different companies, in different industries, doing things in different ways etc, is something their myopia prevents them from even being aware of, never mind understanding. Employers need to be much more realistic, but if they want graduates to have more appropriate skills then they need to become more collaborative
This is not the same as saying “more involved” because then they try to dictate and their ignorance becomes palpable. This is rather an old story, but my PhD supervisor one night at a dinner, found himself beside Hector Laing, then chairman of United Biscuits and Treasurer of the Tory Party – a darling of Margaret Thatcher. On learning what David did, old man Laing expressed his disappointment with the quality of young graduates. Rather then being apologetic (and because David is a bad b*****d) he asked Laing what skills they should have. After a bit of debate, it became apparent that Laing (who remember at the time is one of the captains of British industry) wanted them to be able to read and if they could count as well that would be an advantage. They haven’t got a b****y clue! They only – as they always do – want something to moan about, someone else to blame.
In short, the whole “number at University” strategy, and the annual row about the numbers and the attainment gap etc misses the point entirely. Certainly, being a graduate in any discipline teaches certain basic skills – creativity, research, looking for alternative answers, communication etc – but in that case does it matter what any graduate studies. Why not recruit Nurses (now a graduate profession) from the ranks of graduates in Ancient Hebrew? How many graduates are in jobs which actually use their skills? How many degrees are just cannon fodder for avaricious employers – for instance para-legals (BA in Law) who get taken on by law firms to do the donkey work for much less than if they had an LLB but the client gets charged as if they did.
There are two necessities for any future debate about training and education? First, we need honesty rather than political slogans, a commitment to the future of young people and not the future careers of middle-aged politicians (and in most cases, even older Principals). Secondly, while Higher Education should never be allowed to be only training, there needs to be awareness of employment destinations and that there is a need to profile to some extent post-school opportunities to the needs of getting a job.