I am researching an article about the status of vocational training as opposed to the university education that we’re apparently all meant to aspire to.
In 2002, Chris Woodhead wrote:
“If the Government pursues its policy of expansion the consequences will be dire… for the thousands of students who will find themselves locked into three years of sub-degree study that is unlikely to bring any real intellectual satisfaction, and may well not lead to worthwhile employment.”
I was doing standard grades when he wrote that, and had no intention of going to university. (I was destined to be a writer and thought practical experience would serve me better than studying other people’s books to death.) But just a few years later I was swept along in the expansionist tide, giving in and applying on the grounds that everyone else was going and it probably wouldn’t do any harm.
In fact, this choice led me to become yet another one of the over-educated in a jobs market that needs practical skills far more than the kind of knowledge and attitudes studying for a degree gives you.
He went on to say:
“The Government talks endlessly about the need for graduates in the Knowledge Economy, but the ‘dirty little secret’, remember, ‘is the scarcity of jobs that require more advanced skills.’ We need plumbers and electricians, not, to take the letter C at random, graduates in Caribbean Studies, Caring Services, Childhood Studies, Chiropractice, Cinematics, Clothing Studies, Combined Studies, Communication Studies, Cosmetics, Contemporary Studies, Creative Therapies and Critical Theory.”
The idea of getting everyone to go to uni, irrespective of whether it’s relevant to what they want to do or if it’s even a real subject (sorry, but ‘contemporary studies’?), was apparently justified at the time as being positive for the economy. Even though the Centre for Economic Performance was saying that 30% of British adults were ‘over-educated’ (ie more qualified than they need to be in order to do the job they were in.) I can’t imagine that statistic has improved, based on the number of people I graduated with who have in jobs in admin, retail, call centres etc.
“Margaret Hodge is quite simply wrong. ‘Promoting an ambitious increase in the number of young people in higher education’ is not necessarily ‘an economic imperative’. It could be a waste of everyone’s time and money.”
I really think that this view has been proved correct, less than a decade later. So many spend years of time and thousands of pounds on going to university, and what are they then qualified to do? Study more. Entry level jobs in any field of vague interest are so amazingly competitive that it almost doesn’t matter how good you are, certainly North of the border. You are one of probably 40 or 50 really good, degree wielding candidates. And before whittling you into that pile, the prospective employer had to wade through another 100 or so pretty poor applications.
What university helped me to do was decide that I definitely wanted to write for a living. What graduating into a recession did was help me to hone this a bit more. I was surprised to discover that I still wanted to be a journalist, just like when I was sixteen. University (and DC Thomson rejections) had made me widen my horizons, looking at communications and marketing quite seriously because after all, this would involve writing copy for a living – so what if the content wasn’t quite mine?
But now, having been rejected by far more than merely DC (The Evening News, The Herald, Deadline News, and The Guardian to name but a few), I know I want to write my own stuff. And more than that, I have confidence that some of my ideas are quite good.
On the way towards this realization I discovered that I really should have done vocational journalist training somewhere like Napier, because skills alone do not make up for lack of contacts, NCTJ approved qualifications and a heady mixture of old-skool skillz like shorthand and new media ones like podcasting. So now I am building up my knowledge base in a haphazard sort of a way, and freelancing – invariably for free.
I will get there eventually. But I think I would have even if I hadn’t gone to St Andrews. I was already blogging constantly and writing reviews for local papers in Perthshire before my third knock-back bounced me across the Tay to sunny Fife.
But what of the people I graduated with? Those who got their 2:1 in whatever and then said well, that box is ticked. Now what? Some have traveled. Some went into jobs in offices or retail. And a worrying number went straight back into education again.
I can genuinely only bring to mind about 3 people who went and got ‘graduate’ level jobs. For which you may read ‘went through 8 rounds of interviewing with one of the companies on Milkround, and after a great deal of stress in their final year attained high-paid jobs in London which they don’t particularly enjoy.’
Does anyone really gain from even higher percentages of young people going to university ‘cuz thats what you do’? Education for its own sake is a wonderful, interesting thing, but I don’t think it suits everyone. The reason I went is because I wasn’t sure I was cut out for what I wanted to do. That’s a hell of a reason to run up several thousand pounds worth of debt.
The book I was quoting from is ‘Class War’ by Chris Woodhead, published by Little, Brown in 2002 and available to purchase here.