Haggling in the marketplace

October 26, 1995

The animal spirits of education entrepreneurs have rewarded Iona Burchell with two degrees, debt and no job

I noticed a job advertisement the other day in a local paper which proudly proclaimed that "ex-graduates" were particularly welcome to apply. After spending some moments attempting to figure out the physical impossibilities of such a statement it dawned on me that perhaps there was more than a little (albeit ironic) truth to such a phrase.

"A degree used to really mean something." It is a well-worn statement used by many a student on his/her graduation in the past three to four years. But as with all cliches, the reason it stands as such is because it is true. A degree used to be a highly valued commodity. It might not have offered a future panacea for all its recipients, but it represented achievements in dedication and aptitude which the world of work was only too eager to recognise should a graduate choose to enter such a world.

The key word here is choice. A degree used to offer a choice for the future. That chance no longer exists. Graduates with a good honours degree a few years ago could guarantee themselves, if not exactly well-paid, at least challenging, work. Today graduates with exactly the same qualifications more often than not finds themselves facing job vacancies that ten years ago were being filled by school leavers.

It used to be that an upper second was valued and appreciated as such. This is no longer the case. What is increasingly more relevant is at which academic institution the degree was attained. There has always been a certain degree bias towards (or away from) Oxbridge and the so-called Ivy League universities, but what we now have in operation is a university league not dissimilar to football's. A chance of a job appears to depend on which division your university finds itself in. Those holding degrees from the "bottom two" divisions find themselves accordingly relegated out of the job hunting league.

Who or what exactly is responsible for this? I find myself looking increasingly at the door of the present Government. I believe it was Kenneth Baker who announced ambitious plans to increase the number of students staying on or returning to higher education. The principle is to be applauded but the problems stem from the success of this particular education policy.

Target numbers have been achieved five years too early. More people than ever before are now studying. However, the "success" story has been a limited one. Arts, humanities and social science students outnumber those of science. This is nothing new. But the sheer volume of students highlights the discrepancy and forces the issue of a redressing of balance.

Financial penalties have been imposed by the Government on institutions which fail to fill their "science" courses. This has led them to either fill such courses at any cost to academic standards or face severe financial constraints on next year's budget. Compromise has been the name of the game.

Arts courses have been "renamed" in order to persuade Government that institutions are providing adequate science-based graduates while at the same time making sure prospective students are fully aware that the scientific component of said course will form a minimal part of their studies. It is because of inadequate governmental planning and ill-conceived ideas that universities are facing a crisis of confidence.

The Tory philosophy of healthy competition in the market place has transformed the sector into a demeaning squabble with institutions desperately scrabbling around for adequate student numbers in order to fulfil Government targets. Whether by choice or design, it is quite patently not only students but institutions that have been seduced by the ethos of competitive Conservatism. The result has been an overall devaluation of any aspect of academic study.

In line with this competitive spirit university status was granted to many institutions. The result has been that education has become a market place. The incentives for further study are enormous, especially to the young.

Eighteen-year-olds are being offered Pounds l,000 interest-free overdraft facilities and student loans of Pounds 1,400-plus for each year of their study. But increasing student numbers means increasing job-seeking graduates. The premise behind student loans as I understood it when I received mine was that graduates repay the money they have borrowed back into the system because their degree had earned them the right to choose a well-paid and challenging job. This ploughing back into the system should allow others to benefit from the challenge of university education.

The farce is of course that many graduates are earnlng barely enough money to live, let alone to re-pay their loans. I do not know where this never-ending flow of cash is coming from to supply the Student Loan Company, but it sure is not from their clients. Personally, I look forward to a third year with debt hanging over my head.

When it comes right down to it I quite like the idea of being an "ex-graduate"; it is rather like being an ex-employee, except that you do not qualify for unemployment benefit. Still I maintain there is a certain kudos to being an "ex-graduate", and I would never undervalue my own two degrees, except to say that I am still temporarily "between jobs".

Iona Burchell is a recent graduate of the University of Warwick.

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