Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Supply and demand

Uni or work was not something that bothered me. Whilst I hung on like a crab until I got to the Extra year after 6th Form group, university was never on the cards. My aim was one of the very highly prized craft apprenticeships sponsored by what was then the Ministry of Supply. These provided training at places like RAE Farnborough, The Atomic Energy Commission at Aldermaston or the Royal Armaments at Enfield. I bid for Farnborough. There were six places; I was seventh in the nation-wide examination and practical tests so, not having got what I wanted, I went all sulky and surrendered myself to the National Service Act. Idea was to see some of how the world worked and decide on my future after that. Of course, I was like a pig in clover as a soldier and that was the end of that idea.

For uni candidates today, there are other concerns as it seems that the jobs market is flooded with graduates. The Confederation of British Industry worries this is the case: on September 17th it launched a task-force to consider not only whether the wrong sort of graduates are being turned out but also whether supply risks outstripping demand.

This is likely to be what concerns students most. A survey released on September 11th by Sodexo, an education-outsourcing company, found that for more than half of them the prime reason for pursuing a degree was to improve job or salary prospects, or that they had to for their chosen profession. Only 9% wanted to increase their knowledge of an area of interest.

At first glance, the earnings uplift looks worthwhile. An estimate in 2006 suggested that in purely financial terms a degree produced the same lifetime-income stream as giving an 18-year-old with two A-levels £160,000 to invest. But cracks are appearing in the “graduate premium”. For one thing, it varies immensely by field of study (see chart): men with arts degrees can expect to earn less than if they had skipped university entirely. (The relative returns for graduate women are higher not because they earn more than men but because less-qualified women earn very little.) For another, its value is increasingly dependent on the detail.

Robin Naylor, at Warwick University, has found that the average return to a degree has held up well over the past 20 years, but it has become more variable: the university now matters greatly, as does the degree class. “The penalty for not having a degree is high, but the penalty for getting the wrong one can be even higher,” he says. And Francis Green, of Kent University, has discovered that in 2006 a third of graduates were working in jobs that did not require a degree, up from a quarter in 2001; they earned a third less than those who were using their degrees.

It is too late for this year’s freshers to reconsider their university careers; but what should next year’s batch do? Those who are in it for the money should be ruthless about what they study and where—and then be sure to work hard and get good marks. Or they could throw away the calculator and follow their hearts. “It’s a big risk, going to university, much bigger than it used to be,” says Mr Naylor. “But if you study something you like, then even if you don’t earn so much, there is a better chance you’ll work in a field you love.”

In my short life as a Young Communist (I joined for the heavily-subsidised travel to Russia), I saw sense in the directed education that the Communists were working to at that time. Their Five Year (or longer) Plans determined, for example, how many engineers the Plan would need. They then arranged that a sufficient number of the right kind of engineers were found and trained to do that job. Directed labour was anethma to the British way of life but it did mean that the work got the workers needed and the people had training and a guaranteed job at the end of it. Funnily enough, we did have directed labour - look up Bevan Boys and the work they did in the coal industry during the 2nd World War.

As regards Mr Naylor's comment, “But if you study something you like, then even if you don’t earn so much, there is a better chance you’ll work in a field you love.” is a valid one. But just how many art historians or media studies graduates can the country support? If they are on low earnings, they will have the collar of student debt around their necks for a very long time. Working in a field one loves at low return is somewhat like love in a garret; money does not make love easy to find but makes things a lot more comfortable whilst waiting for love to come around.

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