Tuesday, 13 September 2011

FEATURE: Higher education... what for?

Source: PA

Higher education is meant to be the way to access better jobs. That is, at least, what we have been constantly told. But to what extent is this true? Higher education is, indeed, a via crucis somebody has to follow in order to get to the top positions but this does not mean that everybody that follows a university degree (be it a BA, MA, MSC, MBA or a PHD) will land a good job. Not anymore at least.

Decades ago going to the university was the way to gather all that knowledge that earned you the respect of companies and employers. Since most of the people didn't have the chance to go to university, graduates were scarce and, therefore, in high demand. Now, instead, almost everybody chooses to study a BA at a university. Those who don't take a university course don't actually take it because they don't want to, not because they can't, as it used to be the case. Hence the standarisation and democratisation of higher education (a logical step forward in the educational system, on the other hand) has also brought in its devaluation.

Some time ago those who only had a BA would find a well paid and well regarded job. Now nobody of those do. You are better off working as a shop assistant or as a plumber.

Let's explain it graphically: John and Mark attended the same high school. John decided not to pursue higher education, as he wanted to earn fresh cash as soon as possible, so he started working as a plumber. Mark, instead, thought that his job prospects would be enhanced by pursuing further education, so he decided to enrol on a BA in Journalism. John worked hard, but earned a slightly lower salary than the average. Mark, on the other hand, had to find a part-time job in order to fund his studies at the university, so he worked as hard as John while he studied, during five years. In those five years John bought a car and a house, whereas Mark earned a part-time salary which allowed him to pay for his course fees every year. But it was fine, he thought, as after graduation he would land a good job.

When he graduated, after 5 years, he was already 22. A good age to start his first job. But he soon realised that all he could find were unpaid internships. They told him that it was the price to pay in order to find a place in the industry. A sort of a sacrifice he had to do if he wanted to access to the prestigious and well paid jobs. So he went through two or three internships. In the meantime nothing had changed for John. He kept working hard and earning a fair salary.

After a few unpaid internships Mark could actually land an entry-level job, perceiving the minimum legal wage. It was tough, he had to do many extra hours for free, he had few holidays and a lot of work. But they told him that it was the way to get to better positions. So he worked there. For a year. For two. When he realised that nothing was changing he decided to take a Masters. They told him that an MA in his CV would definitely make the difference. So he took a Masters while he was working fulltime. He even studied a different, more economic-oriented masters, to open up more doors, to make him more appealing for companies. So he gathered all his savings, he spent an awful lot of money, and he struggled for one year combining work and study again. But he managed. And he got the certificate, brand new, that he added to his CV. But nothing changed. So after another year working at the same place and earning exactly the same wage as he was earning three years before (the minimum wage with which he could only pay the basics), he decided to take the big step. In order to boost his job opportunities he decided to study a second Masters abroad, in one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Once again he had to gather the money by combining two jobs, given that the salary he perceived from his main job was too low. So there he was, working from Monday to Friday, nine hours a day, in one job, and from Friday to Monday, six hours a day, in another job. Eventually he gathered the money, he paid the fees and off he went to his new destination.

After another year he had a sparkling CV. 5-year BA taken in two different countries, MA taken in another country. Another MA taken in another country. Four years of work experience in the field. Fluency in four languages.... and still he was unable to find a good job.

In the meantime John still kept working as a plumber and perceiving a better salary than Mark, already 28, would ever get.

And there we have John, 28, working as a plumber for the last ten years, and earning a stable and fair income; and Mark, 28 as well, unemployed, having worked in different low-skilled jobs, some high-skilled ones, having taken three university degrees (two of them while working), and having spent thousands of pounds on an education that did not deliver any result.

The question is obvious: How is it possible that John, basic education and a rather easy life, is getting more money and is living a more stable life than Mark, with different university degrees, languages and different work experience?

Something somewhere went obviously wrong.

Source: Daily Mail

The first reason is that higher education is not a luxury anymore. The democratisation of universities has devalued them. Since everybody can access to university courses, having a BA is the normal thing. It is not something special anymore.

There are of course some exceptions: A degree in a prestigious school or university will probably help you land a good job. But, again, these courses are created by the elite for the elite, and therefore too expensive for a mortal. A Warwick/Oxbridge/Eton... graduate + LSE/London School of Business...MA will land those top jobs. A normal student who can't afford a pricey university is more likely to end up holding a BA and one or two MAs in different universities and, even though in many cases these graduates will be definitely much more skilled and prepared to work than some of those who graduated from top level schools and universities (but who got the money to pay for the course), they won't find a good job. They will land an average-poorly-paid-job.

The second reason is that theoretical knowledge does not prepare you for developing tasks in a practical job. Theoretical knowledge is theoretical knowledge. Decades ago theoretical knowledge was perceived as something extremely prestigious. Those who had this theoretical knowledge would therefore land the best jobs because they were wise and they had been learning in a scholar background not available to everybody.

The third reason is that, even though you can actually find almost a university degree for every single academic field, 90% of them are useless. It is interesting to learn ancient Greek, but you will not be able to compete with someone who can actually manage a business, design a building or simply fix a flooded sewer.

The fourth reason is that many of the tasks needed in a day-to-day basis in a job can be actually done by people who don't necessarily have any theoretical knowledge on the issue. Only an architect is able or even allowed to design a building. Everybody can work as a journalist as long as he is good at it. Everybody can work as a translator if he's good enough in the required language. The journalist who took his degree in Journalism or the Doctor in Philosophy who graduated from a MSC in German Philosophy can't design a building nor fix a flooded sewer. Therefore they won't find a job easily. John the plumber will find a job more easily than them, and will certainly get paid more than them.

The fifth reason is that nowadays companies want people who can develop many different tasks, so rather than hiring three skilled people who will carry out their different skilled work, they want to reduce costs and hire one person who can do the work of the three of them, maybe not as efficiently as they would, but which will definitely be cheaper.

The sixth reason is that in many countries the higher degree you own, the more you should be paid by law. These are called "professional categories" in some countries, and it means that if you hold an MA, you must earn more than someone who just has a BA, even if you are developing the same tasks. Companies don't like that, because this implies that they have to pay more for the same task that some other less skilled worker can do. That is why they either obviate this soft law, or they opt for hiring someone less skilled. This is particularly current in low-skilled jobs that students look for to fund their higher education. The result is clear: some BA students tend to hide to potential employers that they hold a BA in order to land a low-skilled job that will allow them to pay their even further education.

The conclusion, hence, is obvious: if you want to land a good job you need money. An awful lot of money. Save money enough to pay a BA at Oxford University and be good enough to get into Oxford University. Afterward, once you have graduated, save even more money to pay even more money to get into the LSE or the MIT. And after that you're done.

If you don't have the means to do that, the best you can do is spotting the career opportunities before actually choosing a BA. Try to get into the best "normal" universities, cross your fingers, work hard, be one of the best if not the best of the whole university, and maybe you will be able to, at some point, find something not very bad.

If not you can always forget about all this fuss and focus on sewers and waterpipes and keep working since you are 17 as a plumber, earning more (and more stable) money than your scholar counterparts.

By CDR with No comments


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