There have been two stories which struck me in the last week about the relationship between work and education which at one level seem to be saying something rather different, but at another level seem to be starting from a very similar perspective.
The first was this one from the BBC, saying that almost a third of graduates are ‘over-educated’ for the jobs they are doing. In the terms in which they define the problem, I think this may be a significant under-estimate. There are plenty of jobs around which employers have decided to market and recruit into as ‘graduate’ jobs but for which the benefit of having a degree is not obvious. Having worked for one company which prided itself on only recruiting graduates, and been involved in the recruitment process, I have a feeling that the declaration of a job as being for graduates had more to do with a form of snobbishness than actual necessity. And, dare I say it, it also made recruitment easier – telling 70% of young people that they need not apply avoids a laborious sift through an excess of applications. In other cases, jobs are reserved for graduates on the basis of an assumption that possession of a degree in any subject is indicative of an ability to learn and adapt, but my own experience of recruitment suggests that the relationship between a degree and the ability to learn and adapt is, at best, approximate rather than a straight line.
The second story was this blog post on the IWA website, arguing that the workplace changes we are going to see in future years will require that we step up the number of young Welsh people with degrees to meet the challenges.
As I say, at first sight they appear to be saying two very different things; the first arguing that we have too many graduates for the opportunities available and the second arguing that we need more graduates in order to take advantage of future opportunities. But at another level, they are saying something very similar – or, at least, are based on a similar assumption, which is that the aim of the university system should be to produce the right number of people with the right level of qualifications to suit the needs of the labour market. Now I don’t doubt that there are some professions where that relationship is important – I wouldn’t want to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon, for instance. But in many other walks of life what matters is ability, skill and adaptability, and those things aren’t easily measured by qualifications.
But even more important than that is the wider question of what education is for. Do we, as a society, not see any inherent value in individuals learning and acquiring knowledge for its own sake, or for their own fulfilment, independently of any impact on their employment and earning potential? Is there no value to our society as a whole in having a better educated population, able to contribute to the whole outside the formal world of work? Whilst some see the problem in terms of matching the numbers and qualifications to the demands of the workplace, I see the problem as being the assumption that they should match in the first place.