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Neither a diversion nor a cause, but a big question

Blaming universities for graduate unemployment is an intentional diversion from the real cause of youth unemployment. But we need to open up a much wider and better informed debate about what universities are for.

It feels like it should be unnecessary but nevertheless I find few people saying it – there is more to a university degree than just a job. And an equally important point, also missing from much of contemporary debate – if you can’t find a job, don’t blame your university. There has been a lot of coverage today of a helpline for unemployed recent graduates which has been ‘inundated’ with calls. This has been accepted fairly widely as some measure of a crisis in confidence in university education and its value (certainly its financial value). But some more searching questions might be in order.

The first of these is how we got to the point where the only terms of reference we have for higher education is how successful it is in making the individual wealthy. Forget centuries of human advance in medicine, engineering, electronics, computing, environmental science, architecture – the list is very long. Forget the enormous national importance of what now we just call ‘arts and culture’, an enormous amount of which has roots back to higher education. Forget our understanding of ourselves, of the world, of the universe – who’s getting rich? It was a Thatcherite conversion. Once education was done as ‘self improvement’ and then one’s ‘improved self’ would gain incidental benefits, including greater prosperity. We have simply downplayed the ‘self improvement’ bit and removed the ‘and then’ bit altogether. A university education is now a seamless means of achieving benefits, a completely utilitarian institution measured in cash benefit. It might be worth remembering that the Tories really were not keen on the humanities and social sciences – disciplines that had an unfortunate habit of criticising Tory plans on the basis that they would not work. And it is still worth noting that the the Mail and the Express have run a sniping campaign about universities and education for years.

A second question is about how universities have responded and changed. In fact, there is plenty to criticise. The creation of the subject ‘business studies’ in the 1980s was a university response (perhaps capitulation) to that Tory agenda. A subject was created, the full thrust of which was to make its participants ‘business people’. It is now easily the biggest subject in Scottish universities. But it doesn’t confer the highest salaries, not least because it is slanted towards lower income and first generation students who want an education but are nervous about the future and want a sense of future security. And still the big earners come from the humanities, sciences and medicine (most major CEOs are still classically trained in humanities – undergraduate business degrees are for ‘little people’). This is only one example; so keen to please are universities that they have reshaped themselves to this agenda with little resistance.

A third is about how universities are being used as yet one more diversion during the current economic crisis. The fact that graduates are not getting jobs is a function not of their education but of their age and the actions of those who crashed the economy. Graduates actually do significantly better at getting jobs than non-graduates of the same age (something you rarely hear). In part that is because of the catastrophe which is youth unemployment – any rate of employment comes to look good by comparison. But to blame university education or conclude that it is futile because people aren’t getting jobs is intentionally to get things the wrong way round. There are no jobs for young people. That’s the problem. Don’t blame their education, blame the nature of the UK financialised economy.

There’s a lot of this going about just now – the symptoms of the economic crisis are subliminally being confused with their causes. The broken eggs are all the fault of the floor, not the person who dropped them. This is no accident, it is part of the orchestrated fight-back by those who want to reinstate the basket-case economy that benefited only them.

But the fact that it is a diversion doesn’t mean we should simply look away. There are big issues about education, the direction it is taking, the way it is conceived and funded, the content and ethos and they need to be discussed properly. In higher education in particular, it can no longer be the case that this debate is largely between Scottish Enterprise and universities. Scotland contains virtually no lobby interested in the inherent value of education other than in its function as an economic good. That can’t be healthy.

So we should stop seeing graduate unemployment as a function of their education rather than as a function of the failure in neoliberal economics. But at the same time, we should start asking some much more searching questions about what Scotland want’s from its education system and particularly its universities. And that conversation needs to be much wider than the cost chat between business leaders and principals that currently dominates.

Robin McAlpine