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Image: Gordon Griffiths

The end of the university dream?

The narrative is simple: work hard at school, pass your exams, go to university, get a degree and get on the career ladder.  For the baby boomer generation this was without doubt the road to (relative) riches.  The expanding and modernising economy of the 1960s had more graduate vacancies than it could fill with the result that the only unemployed graduates in those days were the ones who chose not to work.  The 1944 Education Act and the grammar school system had paved the way for previously excluded working class kids to get scholarships to pass the necessary exams to enter university.  And although private schools and Oxbridge maintained their hold on the route to power and privilege, new “red brick” universities made many more people upwardly mobile.

Fast forward to post-GFA (global financial accident) Britain and you find an entirely different picture.  The middle classes have long since pulled up the education ladder – effectively locking most working class kids out before they finish secondary school.  Those who do manage to get through a National Curriculum system that is designed to exclude face the additional deterrent of debt – to which working class people have always had a different outlook to the middle class; quite rightly viewing it as the road to serfdom.  Rising living costs and tuition fees load students up with debts that for all but the privileged few take decades to repay.  And the degree they get at the end of the process has been so devalued by Mr Blair’s insane attempt to push 50 percent of the population through university that few are able to compete for graduate jobs at the end.

In 2008, the average graduate salary in Britain was £24,000.  After eight years of austerity the average graduate salary is still £24,000; despite living costs having risen considerably in that time.  One reason for this is that large numbers of graduates are filling non-graduate positions.  As Javier Espinoza at the Telegraph notes:

“Over 50,000 new graduates are in non-graduate jobs, including lollypop ladies, factory workers and hospital porters, new figures showed, as experts questioned the value of a university degree.  Non-professional roles included jobs as secretaries and clerks but close to 10,000 graduates were also involved in ‘elementary jobs’ including shelf fillers, security guards and farm workers six months after graduation.”

In addition, 13,900 graduates were still out of work six months after graduating (Something that has a knock-on effect on the employment prospects, incomes and life chances of the 50 percent who lack a university degree).  This has led to calls to provide university applicants with much better information about earnings and job opportunities linked to each course rather than to a broad subject area.  As Espinoza observes:

“If they’ve taken applied degree in a subject like computer science and that does not lead directly to a job which seemingly is crying out for good graduates then there must be a question mark about the courses that they have followed.”

This may lead to greater competition for the most lucrative courses and a lack of interest in the less effective ones.  However, these are merely sticking plasters for a narrative that is past its sell-by date.  The truth is that what worked for ten percent of the baby boomer generation at a time when the economy was growing and modernising simply does not work for 50 percent of Millennials at a time when the economy is stagnating and the only place that is modernising is China.

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