When merit means nothing

July 20, 2007

The shift to mass higher education has created an 'opportunity trap' in which students' rising expectations for a career meet the reality of a static jobs market. Phillip Brown considers the consequences.

Today we are told that we have more opportunities than ever before. To listen to the rhetoric of the knowledge economy, there is little to stand in the way of the aspirations of university graduates in a society hungry for talent, knowledge and creative minds. The disappointment has been the failure to extend the same opportunities for self-fulfilment to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, leading to renewed efforts to widen participation. This focus on the opportunity gap remains important as the relative chances of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds attending university has declined despite the rapid increase in student numbers.

But what of those who make it into university? Far less attention has been given to how the competition for education, jobs and rewards is being transformed in ways that have profound consequences for student experiences and employment prospects. It exposes a secret war for positional advantage that involves students, parents and staff. The primary motivation of many students does not reflect an expression of personal freedom and intellectual curiosity because it is secondary to the requirements of the competition for a livelihood. Students aspiring to tough-entry jobs, previously associated with a university degree, are caught in an opportunity trap forcing them to spend more time, effort and money on activities that may have little intrinsic educational purpose in an attempt to fulfil their "opportunities".

Expectations of middle-class lifestyles, fuelled by the rise of mass higher education, have sucked more people into already congested labour markets. Although not all graduates expect glittering vocational prizes at the end of their studies, the supply of aspirants greatly outstrips employer demand for this wealth of talent. Students are also playing for higher stakes as the price of failure has risen against a backdrop of a threadbare welfare safety net and widening income disparity among graduates. Research by Hugh Lauder, professor of education and political economy at Bath University, and his colleagues found that income differences within the graduate population are far greater than the differences in median earnings between graduates and non graduates.

These trends have created an opportunity trap because students, like the rest of us, are being forced to depend on a job market that is unable to cope with the rising tide of individual, social and political expectations. This leaves students with few alternative routes to "success" because academic credentials are a currency of opportunity that define entry to the graduate job market.

Some commentators will argue that more competition will lead students to raise their game and raise levels of examination achievement, but this does little to improve the relative chances of individuals entering tough-entry universities or jobs. If everyone adopts the same tactics in the competition for positional advantage, no one secures an advantage. As the sociologist Fred Hirsch observed: "If everyone stands on tiptoe, nobody gets a better view." But if you don't stand on tiptoe, there is no chance of seeing.

When competition is fierce, it puts more pressure on getting access to the best universities and programmes as a mark of distinction. The middle classes, fuelled by ambition, insecurity and the moral obligation to do the best for their children, are increasingly aware of the problems of social congestion in education and the labour market. If being good is no longer good enough, some parents adopt desperate measures to give their children a competitive advantage, such as those who suddenly discover religion to get their child into the local church school with a good reputation. The use of private tutors has become de rigueur in competitive hot spots, most notably in London and the South East. At the same time, child's play has been transformed into a calculated investment in positional advantage. Ballet lessons, horse riding, music classes and sporting activities are valued as investments in future educability and employability. It is driven by the attempt to acquire that "extra something" that allows one to stand above the rest. If this were not enough, throughout England children are being schooled in a testing regime that will examine them more than 100 times before their 18th birthday. Unsurprisingly, by the time they reach university even the most creative minds have been dulled.

The opportunity trap is not restricted to the competition for high-status credentials. Employers argue that paper qualifications tell them less about what they need to know, resulting in a shift to competency-based recruitment that requires candidates to demonstrate evidence of get-up-and-go, being a team player, social confidence and so on. If first-class minds don't necessarily make first-class managers, everything that individuals do outside of the lecture theatre becomes part of an "economy of experience" that must be packaged as the productive self.

Almost every facet of our public lives and private selves is implicated in the battle for distinction that has become a legitimate part of translating opportunities into occupational success. Another interpretation is that employers need to find new technologies of rejection to justify why large numbers of well-qualified graduates cannot find the jobs that had enticed them into higher education.

Inevitably, the opportunity trap is having an impact on the way students view their time at university. In The Mismanagement of Talent , which I wrote with Anthony Hesketh, we show that although candidates for fast-track management jobs from a number of universities in the UK shared similar expectations of finding well-paid and rewarding jobs, there were differences in the way they understood university life and managed their employability. We identify two "ideal types" - Purists and Players - and found evidence of a shift to player strategies, although this research should be treated as indicative rather than definitive.

The Purists viewed employability as winning a competitive advantage in a meritocratic race, where differences in individual achievement reflected innate capabilities, effort and ambition. Work was viewed as an expression of the self. Securing the "right" job involved developing good self-presentation skills so that employers could see the "genuine article". Hence, individual employability amounted to a "technical puzzle" of finding employment that offered the right "fit" with their knowledge, skills and aspirations.

The Players understood employability as a positional game of how to win a competitive advantage in congested job markets. To stand out from the crowd, they used careers information and social contacts to "decode" the winning formula, attended workshops that simulated group exercises at recruitment events, read books on how to answer difficult interview questions and "practised" psychometric tests. Engaging in university clubs, voluntary work and waged work is motivated by the need to add value to one's curriculum vitae. They understood the task as learning to be competent at being competent, given that this is how they would be judged by employers. This tailoring of the self to the requirements of the competition was the price that had to be paid.

The distinction between Players and Purists captures a broader cultural confusion within the middle classes. Increasing labour market congestion and status anxieties have heightened ethical tensions about the legitimate route to success. The meritocratic ethos remains deeply ingrained in the psyche of the middle classes, in the belief that what is achieved should reflect differences in individual efforts and abilities. But this is increasingly at odds with those who now see achievement in market terms, as a Darwinian struggle for positional advantage based on the exploitation of all the resources an individual can muster - material, intellectual, cultural and even sexual. This includes buying a better education, using personal networks or tailoring one's self to the perceived requirements for success.

The opportunity trap is also transforming our understanding of human capability. For centuries, it was assumed that a limited pool of talent imposed innate barriers to the numbers who could benefit from higher education. The shift to mass higher education has exposed this view of intelligence for what it is: a social fiction. It is the social limits to opportunity that represent the main problem in developed economies. The opportunity trap can be explained by rising expectations and the economic limits to high-skilled, high-waged employment, rather than innate limits of human capacities.

But the problem it poses for governments is that it reopens age-old questions of "who does what" (efficiency) and "who gets what" (justice). In the 20th century, the education system came to perform a key role in rationing access to credentials that served to legitimise occupational and income inequalities, but in exposing the social limits to opportunity, social democracies have become the victims of their own success.

Phillip Brown is professor of social sciences, Cardiff University. His paper The Opportunity Trap appears in Education, Globalization and Social Change , edited by H. Lauder, P. Brown, J. A. Dillabough and A. H. Halsey, Oxford University Press.

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