We Need To Talk About University

Most of us who had the privilege of going to university tend to remember our time fondly. It is a time of coming of age: where the promises of social mobility are wrapped up in a social fabric littered with sex, drugs, experimentation and the carelessness associated with the naivety of youth. It has, in recent years, become something of a social experience, a cultural phenomenon if you will. But, all things considered, I cannot help but feel our university system is failing students, graduates, and employers.

This has been a sh*t year, by anyone’s standards. The symphony of lockdowns, poor economic prospects, and general uncertainty has been unparalleled; this itself is no significant revelation. It’s been a debacle of a year- we all know it- and I write this article from a place of particular privilege. My life, like most, has been negatively affected by the pandemic, but I find myself in a relatively fortunate position: my livelihood has not been decimated, nor have I experienced the insurmountable pain of losing a cherished friend or family member.

Nonetheless, as a new graduate, what has struck me this year is the contradiction between the higher-education system and the graduate job market. A topic that continues to exacerbate the lives of many young graduates in this country, despite the number of great challenges this year has presented.

The cynic in me is convinced it is all a part of the universities’ marketing scheme: the same way perfume adverts promise to induce the desire of beautiful potential-partners or the way oven chips promise a warm, fuzzy, and endearing family home. Universities promise the opportunity for social mobility, higher wages, and generally better life prospects.

How many of us bought into this advertisement and were ushered away from alternative routes like apprenticeships, young-employment schemes, and developing a skill or trade?

It is not that the universities’ marketing promise of social mobility is unfounded. Many people who attend universities in the U.K. find themselves in high-skill labour: in 2019 some 65% of U.K. graduates found themselves in these positions, earning relatively superior wages to the rest of the general public. Indeed, when the economy is strong- and the job market flourishing- there is inevitably more opportunity for graduates to leverage their education to improve their social-class and access life-changing job opportunities.

It has long been the case that universities provide the educational foundation required to thrive in aptly named “graduate”, entry-level positions. However, accompanying this model has been an underlying assumption that graduate jobs take this knowledge foundation and cultivate individuals; developing their skills to make them valuable assets in the job market. It provides employers with a relative economic upside, banking on the potential of individuals who have demonstrated their capacity through their educational success.

It is a model which requires both of these respective poles to function effectively: universities need to produce potentially excellent workers and the job market must provide employment opportunities for these individuals to further develop their skills and knowledge. As we now know, in times of economic uncertainty graduate opportunities are increasingly limited and this model stalls and falters.

So, what are we to do with the string of continuous graduates, who have higher-level of education but lack relevant skills for the job market?

Increasingly, these graduates are pushed out of potential employment opportunities by seasoned individuals; those who have the benefit of time, exposure, and experience on their side. These individuals who, due to the poor economic conditions, are coerced to apply for what are otherwise considered graduate or entry-level positions- to the detriment of new graduates.

Notably, experience and accumulated skills are often what separate graduates from these seasoned individuals. Graduates reading this will know all too well how frustrating it is to lose out on an opportunity due to experience, or the frustration of applying to entry-level roles which require a minimum of three years prior experience. There is, of course, a reason for this: employers are largely rational actors, and in the current climate, particularly risk-averse. Why bother taking the risk on an unproven asset when there are candidates with tangible experience and a proven track record? If the decision is purely economic, there is little hope for those new graduates.

So, who does the impetus fall upon to change this?

It is, of course, each individuals responsibility to improve their skills and their chances to access better employment opportunities and higher-paid labour. Nonetheless, I cannot help but find fault with our current university structure. Its overly restricted focus on academic achievement, with the conversion of polytechnic colleges to academic institutions, the shift of these organisations have been from developing skills to improving knowledge. This creates a bizarre experience where universities are an extension of school instead of a bridge into the workplace; universities are, after all, referred to as higher-education.

The issue here is as clear as it is paramount: universities are failing students by not helping them successfully bridge the gap between theory and practice- between education and employment. It hangs graduates out to dry, forced to either take it upon themselves to further develop skills relevant for the job market or endlessly apply for graduate positions which assist this development. It is a fault which has become all the more glaringly evident in times of economic hardship and uncertainty.

We are left with a surplus of smart, well-educated, young people, who lack the skills to add value to businesses and organisations. A growing section of the population who were promised social mobility now find themselves unable to reap the benefits of this higher-education. A strange state of affairs that sees many graduates asking: what was the point of it all?

I don’t profess to have all the answers to this current challenge, though it seems to me that some adjustments are obvious and could immediately improve the situation for future university students and graduates.

Firstly, universities need to reorientate back to developing relevant skills alongside fostering advanced knowledge. We need less theory and more practice. This requires universities building stronger ties with local and global employers: identifying what skills are of value to the job-market currently (and in the foreseeable future), and offering modules which seek to cultivate and refine those skills in students.

Secondly, universities should promote job-placements and promote students to take on short stints of employment alongside their studies. This is often offered at universities but is rarely a mainstay of most courses, more needs to be done to enforce students to take on relevant employment opportunities while they are still studying. The enforcement of internships as part of university courses also reduces the risk for employers. They can take solace in the certainty that students will have demonstrated their capacity to add value to organisations by adequately fulfilling job roles while studying. Hiring graduates becomes less of a short-term gamble and more of a safe long-term investment.

Those individuals who come from professional families are often made aware of the need to secure internships while at university, and often provided with the networks to realise such opportunities. In contrast, those who come from working-class backgrounds often have little understanding regarding the significance of internships and relevant work experience. More needs to be done to support those students who are the first of their family to embark on the university adventure. They should be supported and informed of the pitfalls and dangers which inconspicuously lie behind the promises of universities.

Third, and finally, the marketing of universities needs to be changed. Students are often under the impression that achieving academically immediately translates to succeeding within the job market. This is clearly not the case, and more needs to be done to inform students that university is yet another step in achieving high-wage labour, improved job prospects, and social mobility. More also needs to be done during secondary education to remove the stigma regarding alternative routes; university is not always the answer, and more questions should be asked to our young people regarding their desires for the future.

At a university level, it should be made clear that achieving a first-class degree is not nearly enough to make students viable candidates for potential positions. Reasserting this fact will help temper students’ expectations and clarify what else students need to do to have successful careers after graduating.

The current challenges are, of course, not applicable to all graduates nor all prospective students nevertheless more can be done to help those affected. I am aware that I am swimming against the current here, and one piece is highly unlikely to induce any significant changes to the current university system. Nonetheless, by raising awareness regarding the current situation and the challenges facing students, I hope that more can be done to aid students and graduates in the future.

The ways we talk about the university are pertinent, and if we more readily speak about the failures in the current system, my hope is that more energy can be applied to ameliorating its contemporary issues. In time, I hope this will benefit not just students but also universities, employers, and more broadly, society in general.

The issues that riddle the university system are complex and will not be solved over night. If you feel like you have something to add to this discussion, please reach out to me on Twitter: @ch4rlieon

Finally writing about the topics my friends are sick of hearing me speak about