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Back to class

The falling value and rising price of a degree is hitting some harder than others. Laurie Penny looks at what's left of the egalitarian dream of universally accessible education

October 24, 2008
9 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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Class-determined inequality of opportunity has reared its terrible head once more in the British education system, an unforeseen effect of the expansion of higher education under New Labour. A survey of students graduating in 2006 showed that 40 per cent had not found any employment six months after graduating, 12 per cent were not in any kind of employment, education or training, and a further 22 per cent were working full-time in menial, non-graduate jobs such as waiting, bartending, data entry and even sex work (Higher Education at Work, DIUS, 2008).

Under New Labour, government rhetoric has shifted dramatically from a focus on providing ordinary people with a decent living, to the belief that people and their skills are quantifiable as ‘products and services’. A recent government report concluded that the current crisis in higher education can be reduced to the fact that: ‘The market won’t buy products and services that don’t suit its purposes. The current culture does not, in general, engender confidence in the markets in higher education’s ability to deliver effectively courses and services that bring clear, direct benefit to the employer and employee’ (Higher Education for the Workforce, DIUS, 2008).

Graduates, it seems, are now simply an industrial input whose value decreases or increases depending on their particular skill set. The government believes it has a socio-economic duty to provide ‘the market’ with the raw materials it requires, in the form of employees. It is hardly surprising that the concept of dignity in work has all but disappeared from contemporary British parlance, especially for young people entering the workplace.

A degree is not enough

The popular careers website prospects.ac.uk sets future graduates straight about exactly what three or four years of hard struggle and financial strain have won them: ‘A degree is not a guarantee of a good job. In selecting employees, employers will look at what else graduates have to offer, including their skills, work experience (providing desirable commercial awareness) and overall potential. Quite simply, a degree is not enough on its own.’

Final-year students are caught in a bind: their degrees are not yet fitting them out for appropriate employment in Britain’s emerging tertiary sector economy, leaving them to make up the deficit in training and knowledge by themselves – but they still need a degree to progress beyond junior level in most professions.

The current university skills crisis is plain to our political leaders. According to skills minister David Lammy: ‘Britain’s future is as a knowledge economy, creating high-value products and offering innovative services. Low and unskilled work won’t disappear, of course, but our competitiveness depends on a sophisticated workforce who are world-leaders in finance and IT, in engineering and the creative industries. The skills dimension to this new reality requires us to raise our game, and to operate differently … to ensure sustainable economic growth.’

Since higher education is no longer entirely state-funded, most students graduate with a great deal of debt – but the scale of that debt and the impact it makes on their future lives varies hugely with social class. While local education authority (LEA)-sponsored student loans are still low-interest and need only be repaid when the student is earning a decent wage, many students without subsidies from wealthy parents find themselves with overdrafts and ‘career development loans’ to pay off as well. This drives many students from poorer backgrounds into immediate low-level employment in an effort to assuage their creditors. These students, whatever their talents and drive, cannot afford to devote the extra funding and hours of free work (‘work experience’) needed to develop a graduate career, to enhance the skills their degree has given them, or to pursue postgraduate study.

Rhian Jones, 26, grew up in the former mining community of Tredegar, in south-east Wales. ‘Academic research is always what I’ve been best at,’ he says. ‘This led me to get a first from London, and I then went on to do two postgraduate degrees at Oxford, where I focused on popular protest in 19th-century Wales. In order to enable myself to go to Oxford, because I had no means of support or income other than working part-time, I took out a professional studies loan of £25,000. The loan covered my tuition and college fees over three years and in order to pay my rent and bills I worked six part-time jobs over that time.

‘If I hadn’t had to do that work,’ he continues, ‘I would have been able to spend far more time and energy on my research, which would have allowed me to gain the funding I so desperately needed. As it was, having failed to gain sufficient funding to complete a doctorate, I had to cut my degree short and immediately take up work to pay back the loan. Because my part-time employment had lacked a cohesive focus, the only jobs I could get were relatively low-paid.’

A premium on testicles

Hardworking female graduates could be forgiven for feeling themselves particularly worked over by an employment culture whose pretensions to educational meritocracy remain as hypocritical as they ever were. A survey found that the gender gap in earnings for recent graduates starts at 11 per cent and rises to 20 per cent by the time they are in their third jobs (Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility at Work, Sutton Trust, 2007). Women had lower average earnings than men in similar jobs and with similar qualifications, and were far less likely to use their academic qualifications to their fullest potential; only 30 per cent of female science and business graduates went on to gain jobs in the field using their degrees, compared to more than 90 per cent of men. The market buys those raw materials it considers of most economic value – and in the modern workplace a disturbing premium is still placed on the possession of testicles.

For a time, rapid economic growth did a little to kick the sand over the inequality of opportunity that was reasserting itself in higher education. More and more graduates were churned out across the country as higher education expanded to meet New Labour’s target of 50 per cent in university by 2010, but most of these graduates were able to find lowly jobs to cover the bills, even if these jobs were traditionally ‘non-graduate’. Economic expansion and heavy public sector borrowing meant that firms across the tertiary sector could afford to take on and train graduates, and new jobs were relatively easily had in metropolitan areas, to which school and college leavers accordingly flocked.

The ‘credit crunch’ (a concept it’s impossible to pronounce without baring the teeth) has put a stop to that. For the classes of 2007, 2008 and 2009, the glaring inequalities and inefficiencies of the graduate employment world in which 43 per cent of our young people are now involved are becoming all too clear.

Corporate agenda

The function of a degree has perceptibly shifted from a rigorous course of academic and intellectual training to a necessary ticket into a certain class of ‘graduate’ professions – many of which would not have required a degree even ten years ago. As this shift has occurred, colleges, departments and university careers services have aggressively pursued a corporate agenda.

In 1989, Matthew Salusbury observed in Thatcherism Goes to College that ‘Bristol University’s history department was proud of the number of bankers and financial service personnel they had produced, using the fact to justify their continued existence. They would not have recognised the argument that a life in the stock market was as much a waste of a history degree as a lifetime’s unemployment.’ Two decades on, it is the received wisdom that, with a history degree from Bristol, you should have your sights set on the City. How the course makes one more qualified for a career in finance than three years working as a trainee bookkeeper in your hometown, is a question rarely asked. A degree is now a mandatory entrance ticket for higher-paying jobs in most employment sectors, with graduates being expected to find and finance their own targeted training outside study hours.

The onus on graduates to use their own initiative to train themselves through work experience, part-time jobs and postgraduate and vocational courses would be far more acceptable were it not for the regressive nature of student debt. The student loans system and the removal of universal grants have created what is in effect a graduate tax that hits the poor and aspirational far harder than the sons and daughters of the rich.

Simple privilege

Let’s look at this picture from the other side. I’m no slacker. I was raised in the sure knowledge that if you believe in your dreams, trust your heart and follow your star, you will still get beaten every time by the kids who worked harder than you. I was lucky enough to win a place at, and eventually a degree from, an ‘elite’ university. But what has made a difference to my career since is not talent, nor motivation, nor even my degree: it is simple privilege.

At 18, I inherited a sum of money from my grandmother, and that money has meant that I’ve been able to put in hours working for free, holding down only part-time paid work and concentrating on gaining extra qualifications and work experience, while many of my more talented and deserving classmates still find themselves paying off debts in jobs way below their personal and educational capabilities. As the possession of a degree becomes less and less of a social leveller, the privileges and opportunities conferred by wealth continue to differentiate graduates entering the job market, entrenching the very social inequalities that Labour’s notion of higher education for all was meant to erase.

The dialectics of progress are changing in the UK today, and our education system has not yet adapted itself for the transition to an economy based on tertiary-sector employment. Our higher education machine does not deliver the skills and training needed for the 43 per cent of young people who now graduate from university to enter the workforce with ease. However, the aggressive expansion of higher education under late Thatcherism and New Labour has meant that a majority of employers looking for ‘skills’ still require a degree as an entrance ticket to ‘knowledge-based’ careers – leaving graduates with no choice but to find some way of making up the deficit themselves.

The apparatus of post-Thatcherite market ‘meritocracy’ has destroyed the vestiges of social democracy that allowed a minority of our parents’ generation to overstep the economic barriers of their class. It is now harder than ever for new graduates to escape the dictates of their socio-economic background, as a degree loses what value it had as a social leveller.

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Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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