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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

Thursday, 8 September 2011

COMMENT: Metropolis vs. Ex-colonies. Roles reversed?

Source: Daily Mail

PIGS' economic situation is not new. Greece's economy is preparing for its second bailout, after the first one, worth €110bn, failed to boost it. In 2010 its sovereign crisis peaked at a 120% of its GDP (€216bn) and over €20bn were thought to be evaded every year from the Greek tax system. Ireland and Portugal are going through a bailout process, Italy recently announced the biggest spending cuts in decades in an effort to tackle the financial crisis in the country and Spain's economy keeps sinking, with the highest unemployment rate of the whole European Union (almost a 21%), with the collapse of its main industry (building industry) and with financial problems that forced small banks to merge in big entities capable of resisting the crisis.

What is rather new, however, is the situation of some of their former colonies. European powers created a vast network of supplying colonies all around the world, that they exploited for centuries. After lengthy struggles (most of them violent), almost all of these colonies became sovereign states, but in most cases what remained after European colonialism were lawless territories with rivalries that led to bloody civil wars, unexisting economies, and a massive dependence from the ex Metropolis.

Now, tables have turned in some cases. In 2011 Portugal and Spain have become some of the most badly hit economies of the whole European Union. But some of its ex colonies, such as Angola, Paraguay or Brazil are experiencing an economic boom despite the financial crisis.

Public debt in 2010 (% of the GDP)

The difficult situation in Portugal has forced many Portuguese to leave their country, some of them transferring to the ex colonies, trying to find a new life. Exactly the same that people from the ex colonies did until recently, but all the way round.

According to The Economist, in 2007-08 there were 45,000 Portuguese registered in Angola. Only one year later, they were 92,000. Also Angolan banks have started buying stakes in Portuguese banks, as Banco BIC has just done with Banco Português de Negócios. The IMF has forecasted a growth of a 7.8% of Angolan GDP in 2011 and a 10.5% in 2012.

The same can be applied to Brazil, where its two economic giant hubs, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, fight to be considered the most appealing centre where to invest in the country.

Rio has been designed to host the 2016 Olympics, which will bring millions in cash and investments to Brazil's Treasury. Also, in 2010 foreign direct investment peaked at $7.27bn in Rio and $2.73bn in Sao Paulo. The cost of living in both cities has increased in the last year. In 2011 Rio was the 12th most expensive city where to live in the world (it had been the 29th in 2010). Sao Paulo fared even better, entering the top 10 most expensive cities in the world this year (from the 21st position in 2010).

Spain, formerly regarded as one of the most powerful economies of the world (its GDP grew an average of a 3.5% before the crisis and it was the fourth biggest economy of the European Union), is now surpassed by some of its former colonies. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2009 Spain entered recession, growing a -3.7%. Last year its GDP still grew a -0.1%. On the other hand, in 2010 Paraguay's GDP grew a 15.3%, Argentina's a 9.2%, Peru's an 8.8% and Uruguay an 8.5%.

On the other hand, it is said that the financial crisis is a worldwide crisis affecting every country, but figures show that the hardest-hit economies are those of the so-called developed countries, such as in Western Europe, US, Canada and Japan. South America, Southern Africa, China and even Eastern Europe are doing relatively well (see map above).

Seeing these figures it is easy to understand why foreign investment is shifting to new markets, and why migration trends might have changed.

By CDR with No comments

Sunday, 4 September 2011

COMMENT: On the Scottish referendum

Last May, in the regional elections, Alex Salmond's SNP achieved an outstanding victory, retaining 69 seats in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP's best achievement ever, surpassing their important victory in 2007.

A few days after the elections, Salmond stated that since the final objective of the SNP is the independence of Scotland, the new Scottish Government –which will see a majority of SNP's MSPs, therefore being able to pass any law or bill they want without external support from other parties– would hold a referendum on the Scottish independence in the next few years.

The immediate reaction of conservative politicians was to back the celebration of the referendum as soon as possible, therefore trusting that the majority of Scots do not back the break-up of Britain. But the SNP wants to have a few years to prepare the population for a referendum of this kind, hence it will not take place immediately.

But, first of all, would people in Scotland back a referendum on Scottish independence? And second, what does it really imply?

The first movement of the UK Government was admitting and backing the celebration of the referendum, not opposing it. This does not mean that Cons and LibDems are suddenly on Salmond's side, but it may mean that they really know that a majority of Scots would not back Scottish independence, hence they don't see the referendum as a threat. Indeed past surveys have shown that support for independence among Scots is still too small –around 23%, according to the last Scottish Social Attitudes Survey–.

The SNP has to understand that not all of those who have voted them in the regional elections will back a referendum on Scottish independence.

On the other hand, the representation of those who want Scottish independence may be exaggerated at the polls. Most of the people do not care about Scottish independence, and therefore do not take part in surveys. However, a referendum with certain kind of legal validity would drive them to vote and show their opinion, therefore lowering the percentage of those who support Scottish independence. The turnout at the last elections only reached 49%, but a referendum on Scottish independence would see a much higher turnout.

Finally, Salmond has always campaigned for an independent Scotland where North Sea oilfields would finance the cost of independence. But in the current financial and economical landscape it is unlikely that the UK Government would cede the complete exploitation of the North Sea oilfields to Scotland, losing billions of yearly revenues.

Those who back independence have to sit down and stop thinking if Scotland could achieve independence, and start thinking whether it could afford it.

By CDR with No comments

Saturday, 3 September 2011

COMMENT: A brief reflection on the Tottenham riots

When you walk down Tottenham High Road you don't see a dangerous, dodgy district; a grey and ugly suburb where criminals wait around every corner to threaten you. Tottenham High Road is, indeed, the main street of a North London neighbourhood. It could be the neighbouring Wood Green. It could also be Stratford, Mile End, Clapham or Hammersmith. It is a neutral place, dotted with small shops, call centres, groceries and so on. Even the part which faces Tottenham's Police Station, one of the hotspots during the riots, is completely normal.

Of course everything can happen and this neighbourhood can change from day to day and turn into a battlefield, as it was the case barely a month ago. But despite its bad reputation, Tottenham does not look like a pretty dangerous zone where to live.

I read in an article in The Economist that most of the faces captured by the CCTV cameras during the riots in Tottenham were those of black people. It, argues the article, does not mean that the riots were merely aroused by the problem of racism. However, as the article points out, most of the other ethnic groups were not involved in the riots. There is a much larger Bangladeshi community in Tottenham, but none of them looted any shop. The same with other Asian communities.

Then, reports the article, behind the riots and the involvement of black people in them, there are a few questions to bear in mind, a few explanations, such as the situation of the black community, which always arouses suspicion among the Police whenever a crime has been committed, whose children tend to be excluded from school and an important percentage of its adults ends up in jail.

The perception of racism among the black community is very sensible, as the article points out. Many people in the riots could have acted violently as a way to express their frustration and their exclusion of society driven by racism.

However, we should start thinking whether the important question is who took place in the Tottenham riots, who looted the shops, and start thinking about what did they loot.

A very basic way to understand the riots as a reaction against racism is pointing out that, if racism –or angst against it– drove the riots, people would have targeted those who are imposing racism. So far nobody at the riots targeted white communities or private houses owned by white people.

On the other hand, the rioters protested against something, of course, but they only targeted shops. And what they looted were goods. But not all kinds of goods they could reach. As a matter of curiosity, Waterstones, a famous bookshop franchise, was not even touched. If protests were driven by racism, rioters would have looted everything they found on their way. But they didn't. They carefully selected those shops with cool fashion brands, electronic goods, sports garment and the kind, and stormed them.

The fact that the rioters only looted this kind of shops shows to what extent what drove the protests was not an actual reaction against racism, but a reaction against the frustration caused by not being able to purchase all those goods advertised on TV. Looters did not touch a book, but they did loot Primark. They stole clothes and TVs, videogames and laptops. In other words, they "used" the tense and extraordinary situation to steal –and take vengeance on their disfavoured situation.

There is no justification for the riots, but they were definitely not caused by racism. They were not a public outcry against the racist Londoner society. Maybe we should rethink the cause of the riots, forget the easy explanation and analyse what really underlies these acts.

By CDR with No comments

Friday, 2 September 2011

NEW PROJECT: Worldindepth v2.0. What's new?

The new version of Worldindepth is ready to be launched. So what's new?

*First of all I have decided to keep the design as it was, just making minor adjustments, such as changing the pictures featured on the slides. I want people to recognise the website and it would be awkward if I changed the layout and the design completely from time to time. So aesthetically the site looks the same.

*A closer view shows that some categories have disappeared, as it is the case of "Leisure and travel". When I first created Worldindepth I intended to publish some features focusing on different cities in a sort of "touristic, relaxed" way. Then I decided that these kind of features do not match exactly with the aim of the site, and in fact only one feature to the date was published under that category. Therefore I decided to suppress it.

*The order of the sections have varied. The stories and features will be now archived mainly by regions. There still will be a subsection with the old tags (politics, business..etc), but it will be secondary.

*I have gone through the already published pieces, correcting minor mistakes that appeared on them. Now they should be fine.

*The major improvement, and where the core of this refurbishment lies, is on the new categories. You will have noticed that on the secondary section you can find "politics", "business" and "current affairs". But it also features three new sections: "comments", "features" and "interviews".

The aim is classifying the stories by their nature (there were a couple of interviews and not all of the published pieces were strictly features). But it also has another objective, which is where the new worldindepth version lies: Until now I was able to upload a feature from time to time. This is due to the lack of time and because writing a good, long feature takes a lot of time. Therefore it cannot be done from one day to the other.

By creating a new tag, "comments", I will enable a new way to create in-depth stories. I will write a brief comment on a current story. It might not be as long as a feature, but it will definitely be as appealing as a feature, and it will be quicker to write. This will imply that I will be able to offer much more contents, and I will have the chance to publish almost daily.

I will of course keep publishing features from time to time, but an important part of the new worldindepth will lie on the comments.

And this is it. I hope the new worldindepth will be easier to read, and will provide the reader with fresh information more often than before.

By CDR with No comments
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