The obvious conclusion to draw from Allister Heath’s claim that the fastest job growth over the next few years will be in occupations that that don’t require university degrees is that fewer people should be encouraged to go to university. That’s certainly the spin put on it by Heath’s sub-editor, who headlined the piece, “Tell youngsters the truth: the UK needs you to work not go to university”. That also seems to be Heath’s view, judging from his swipe at Tony Blair’s target of getting half of school leavers into university. However, I can think of three possible objections to such an inference. The first is that we cannot depend on these projections as fixed, unchangeable constraints as policy. The second is that a skills mismatch may help drive economic efficiency. The third is that universities should be judged on their merits beyond just preparing people for jobs.
Economic projections are fairly dubious at the best of times, but it would be an obvious mistake to assume that nothing can be done to alter the relative growth rates of different types of jobs. After all, higher education teaching is listed among the fastest growing professions, but that is unlikely to remain the case if student numbers are significantly cut. Though he cautions against top-down planning, it is clear that Heath believes the list of policies he suggests at the end, including lower taxes, less regulation and improving infrastructure will create more graduate jobs. Thus one response to the projections is for the government to undertake the policies it believes can contribute to the development of more jobs requiring university degrees. So the first reason to continue to keep encouraging school leavers into university is because you believe that jobs can be created for them.
The second reason is to promote the meritocratic ideal that most capable person for a job should fill it. If student numbers are contracted to near enough the exact level of graduate jobs, there is no guarantee that the least academically capable will be the ones squeezed out. For one thing, risk aversion and a lack of information or social precedent mean that those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be deterred. For another, many students do not reveal and develop their aptitudes and abilities until they are at university. Meritocracy is obviously a moral ideal – may people believe it is necessary for fairness. But it is also likely to bring about greater productivity and efficiency.
What of the ‘extra’ graduates that are unable to find jobs to match their skills? It is at least possible that they will be more productive in whatever job they end up in than someone who didn’t go to university. After all, beyond the direct technical knowledge imparted by university courses, there are a number of transferrable skills beneficial in almost any workplace, things like communication and time management. There is some evidence that this is the case, but it has also been suggested that these advantages can be wiped out by the lack of motivation of workers who lack job satisfaction because they feel over-qualified.
Of course, even in those cases where attending university is not economically beneficial, either for the individual or the economy at large, there are still a host of reasons why we might encourage people to go to university. The social, cultural and political benefits of a university education have been discussed by at length. It has been suggested that universities help breed a more cultured, moral and democratic society. These benefits are surely not restricted to educating those who stand to get a job at the end of the process.
More radically, for those who accept that the current level of economic development is ‘enough’, university may be seen as playing a role in ‘leisure smoothing’, giving young people an important period of freedom from the demands of paid employment. This fits Robert Skidelsky’s vision that “We shouldn't be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age”. Thus universities might be seen as a sort of retirement community for the young, where they are given the opportunity to be active and social without the demands of making an economic contribution to society.
Now it might well be that these arguments are insufficient to take the sting out of Heath’s critique of the present ideology around higher education. It might be enough to show that is beneficial to have a bare minimum level of university graduates, but not enough to show that the current level is justified. That depends on the empirical facts and the weight given to the different considerations set out here.
However, I think that this debate raises a couple of very important issues for how we should think about higher education, wherever you stand. Firstly, how should the option of higher education be presented to young people? Heath’s indignation in the article comes from the belief that many university graduates are likely to feel disappointed and betrayed, believing their degrees to entitle them to better jobs than they expected. If going to university does not guarantee a graduate job, then Heath is almost certainly correct that it is wrong to mislead school leavers with false promises. Perhaps a better alternative is to present it as a calculated gamble, with a good chance of bringing about a certain type of job and lifestyle, but no guarantee. Moreover, if the economic benefits of university are smaller than we previously believed, perhaps there should be more focus on the non-economic advantages it brings? (If these messages are successful they might increase the job satisfaction of disappointed graduates, and so contribute to productivity)
The second issue this raises is the question of funding. If it turns out that much of the benefit of a university degree doesn’t accrue directly to the individual, but involve the more diffuse goods of economic efficiency through meritocracy and socio-cultural goods, this might be an argument for a greater public funding of higher education, taking more of the burden off individuals.