‘Too many graduates spoil the economy’

Are universities producing too many graduates? There’s been some really interesting debate about this question over the past week, prompted by a report from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), titled Over-qualification and Skills Mismatch in the Graduate Labour Market.

From many angles, it’s difficult to see how such a deftly titled publication could attract such attention. Maybe, in part, that’s an August thing. But it’s also more than that, because the politics of the argument are combustible, especially in the wake of the decision to remove the cap on student numbers. For, if it can be demonstrated that ‘too many’ students are being produced, and if this decision is costing the state money (in the form of fees that will never be repaid), there will be a strong argument in favour of revisiting that decision.

The report is challenging, and a couple of the responses (from HEFCE and The Conversation) have also been well worth reading. In simple economic terms – which are effectively the only terms in which the debate has been conducted – there are some strong points on each side, and inevitably squabbles over the validity of the data being deployed. (The CIPD report, notably, relies heavily on a survey of employee perceptions of the value of their degrees. That’s a new one for me.)

But I’m not an economist, so I don’t want to get involved in those arguments. My points here are more about what the economics leaves out.

      It’s more than the economy, stupid

The fundamental preconception underlying the report has not, to my knowledge, been commented on by anyone. But it’s a curious one: the big idea, as I understand it, is that the ideal state will produce just enough graduates for the available quantity of graduate-level employment. Any more than that will constitute ‘over-production’, and will be a waste of resources. An efficient economy, properly geared towards maximizing productivity, won’t waste money on unnecessary training.

There’s some genuinely compelling material here, particularly the assault on the belief – dominant over the past decade or so – that if we produce more graduates the economy will inevitably produce more graduate-level jobs to accommodate them. But my point here is the preconception about the point of education. As the report puts it: ‘The bottom line is to ask how much more cheaply could an individual have entered a particular job and been just as productive had they not attended university but got there by some other route.’ Such an individual would, by definitionk, be ‘over-educated’.

So my question is: might education have values beyond economic productivity? What about the social value of education? What about its potential to produce better citizens, better voters, better parents, better carers, better volunteers, better artists, and so forth? That line of questioning can veer towards snobbery, of course. I wouldn’t claim for a minute that one needs a university education to be good in any of those roles, but I absolutely would argue that, on average, graduates gain advantages that are economically unmeasurable. And society is better as a result.

I’m sensitive about such arguments, perhaps, because we hear a lot of this sort of discourse in attacks on the humanities. It’s the old utilitarian line: what’s an English degree good for? I suspect that even many of our graduates might struggle to articulate a response to that sort of question, given the baggage that it tends to carry about with it. But I believe they’re better equipped for their working lives, as well as their lives in general, as a result of their education. The ‘graduate premium’ (if you’re not familiar with it, google it) is not just measurable in financial terms.

      What about aspiration?

Reading this report, I couldn’t help thinking about the Victorian line on education for the working classes, which went something like: ‘If t’lad’s only goin’ down t’pit, what good’s learnin’?’ (At least, that’s roughly how I imagine them speaking up north in the nineteenth century.) What’s the point, in other words, of educating someone more than they’re worth?

I don’t want to get silly about this; I’m quite happy to accept that higher education just doesn’t work for quite a lot of people, so it’s crucial that other training and development options are available. I’m also happy enough to consider arguments over what might constitute a healthy HE participation rate. But I’m worried about the potential politics of a report that is blind to any benefits other than the strictly economic. It smacks just a little of ‘keeping ’em in their places’.

Aspiration, I’d argue, is productive. It will admittedly leave many people dissatisfied, when their goals run into brick-wall realities, but it will fuel competition and drive creativity. In the 1590s – to go way back – there were worries about the number of under-employed graduates in London. They grumbled and drank and fought; however, they also produced some of the most powerful and enduring literature in the English language. The best among them famously hadn’t gone to university at all, but the culture he inhabited was shaped by learning.

And one final question: who do you think might find themselves being told not to bother about higher education because there’s not enough graduate employment? It won’t be my nice middle-class white daughters, that’s for sure.

      Politics and politics

So there’s a politics to this, though it’s worth stressing that it doesn’t obviously fit a left-right party-political divide. It’s the Conservatives, after all, who have lifted the cap on student numbers. But there’s a politics to the economic – and only economic – model. And I think this is worth confronting.

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