The Education industrial complex compounds recession

Graduate underemployment in the UK is reaching new heights, and the government’s handling of the situation is getting increasingly farcical.

In this Telegraph story for example, a geology graduate is complaining of having to work for free, for a US-owned pound store to get a weekly dole payment, instead of working in a voluntary job in a local museum.

I’ve nothing against people having to work for the dole, but if a skilled, high-IQ graduate is doing an unskilled job for a foreign company and not paying any income tax, how on earth does that benefit British society?

Of course, the really important thing to take away from this story isn’t that some graduates are being put in silly situations, which is par for the course when dealing with welfare services, but the massive gulf between the number of graduates and the number of graduate positions.

Prior to the late 1980s, graduate underemployment wasn’t really a big issue. Sure we had serious under-employment and unemployment, but most of it was concentrated among people with low skills or those living in acutely depressed areas. Graduate unemployment didn’t get out of hand because you needed relatively high marks to go to university, universities didn’t put on the hard sell to attracts students, and they regulated access to vocationally-orientated courses like teaching to make sure most graduates found placements after graduating.

However, in the early 1990s, universities were commercialised and encouraged to compete with one another to attract as many fee-paying graduates as possible (and the bastard child of Milton Friedman and Anthony Giddens was born!) At the same time, universities and politicians started pouring out simplistic propaganda about the financial benefits of university education. This resulted in a huge surge in enrolments, particularly for liberal arts degrees, but also for fashionable fields like web design, and to a lesser extent for science degrees. As enrolments grew, so did the universities, and sizeable amounts of coin were also pumped into non-teaching related costs like student dorms, college landscaping and advertising.

What makes today’s graduate underemployment worse, is it represents a huge waste of public investment in education and training. If large numbers of students end up working in fields that don’t require degrees, then what benefit is the country receiving from investing in their education? Not only that, but many students have large student loan debts (often to foreign bankers) which means they’re less likely to start families and are more likely to take off overseas in search of higher wages.

It’s time we stopped pretending the national interest is the sum total of millions of “autonomous” young consumers “finding themselves” and is, just that, the national interest.

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