There maybe finally some awakening to the tsunamis of graduates that hit the labour market in recent years. The article quite reasonably sums up what is wrong with too large numbers of people going to university. Over the past twenty-five years or so, a policy of widening access has led to what the author calls “conveyor belt” education, i.e. the automatic advance from one level of school to the next with an almost unreflected progression into higher education. This situation has been accelerated under the pressures of country rankings according to their participation rates at university.

The assumption (promoted by the likes of the OECD’s “Education at a Glance“) is that higher education brings better jobs, better earnings and more job security. This may still be true for some countries and some professions, but, nationally, it has had various negative impacts including and in addition to those mentioned in the article:

We could say, the OECD argument still holds true, just because graduates occupy jobs of non-graduates, hence, relatively speaking, they are “more secure” whether a university degree is actually needed for the job or not. At the same time, they push other school leavers into inferior positions, and this push-chain downward continues to leave the most vulnerable and least educated without jobs or in very precarious situations, while turning academics into cheap labour due to excessive supply. This leads to low-cost for human resources and to deteriorating employment conditions  (zero-hour contracts, etc.).

Another downside of the all-time high participation is that the quality of a university education drops to accommodate higher numbers of graduates, while at the same time the cost of university education rises, which is then passed on to students (and parents) who are often caught in a debt trap. It also prolongs the (unproductive) time for young people before they earn a living. In some countries, the age of young people still living at home has risen dramatically in the wake of this (notably Italy and Spain).

From a sector and vocational point of view, to many businesses a university education adds little in productivity or economically, since higher education is not and has no aim to be a vocational education for professional crafts businesses or the service sector. Too often, students attend a course that has little to do with their later employment, while vice-versa most jobs did not develop into something requiring more sophistication or intellectual capital (e.g. bank clerks).

No wonder then that universities find themselves in an identity crisis with the task of catering for the entire (upper level) labour market. The political push to university participation has, in my mind, neglected other (possible) forms of education that the economy would require. Rather than turning universities into employability factories and away from their mission as think-tanks and innovators to advance human knowledge, they would benefit from a narrower portfolio and target group. Instead of a generalist education that virtually everyone passes and that in its learning outcomes strongly resembles previous grammar schools, we need more real diversity – i.e. quality education opportunities to fulfil a specialist role in the economy, offered by different types of institutions for a variety of learners. In Austria and Germany, the “Fachhochschulen” (comparable to FE colleges) fill this part quite successfully and are flexible enough to adapt to labour market needs.

Careers development for vocational professions should no longer be neglected, but new (higher) designs outside of university are thinkable, which could also lead to more self-esteem of non-university learners, as well as presenting a lifelong learning road for high achievers in non-academic professions.

 

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