A graduate world

Recently I took a taxi to get to the airport; it doesn’t matter right now where this was. As is often the case, I got into a conversation with the driver. Having discovered what my job is, he told me that he was a graduate of two different universities: he had a BA in a humanities subject, and an MSc in a branch of social science. Did he need these degrees to drive his taxi? No, not really. So was the taxi business not his first choice? Well actually, it was, and he was sticking with it. And he was thinking about another degree.

Of course my driver’s thirst for knowledge was wholly admirable, and from the conversation I was able to conclude that he performed well at university and received significant intellectual stimulation from his studies. I could not for a moment argue that he shouldn’t have gone to university. But still, I couldn’t help wondering about it; perhaps this was someone who should be making use of MOOCs (to pick up a discussion we have had on this blog recently).

To be honest, this is a topic I struggle with, in part because there really isn’t a general understanding of how many should avail of higher education. It is easy and right to argue that the old system in which universities just educated a social elite was fundamentally wrong. It is also easy, indeed necessary, to emphasise that higher education must be available to talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same ease of access as enjoyed by those who were born relatively privileged. But once we have agreed that, how far do we take this? What percentage of our population do we expect to be graduates?

In most developed countries, the percentage has been moving steadily upwards. According to OECD statistics (which however only take us as far as 2006), the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 with tertiary degrees in most countries is now well over 25 per cent. In some countries it is significantly higher: in Canada it is 47 per cent, and in the United States and Japan it is around 40 per cent. In Ireland and the UK it is around 30 per cent. In most of these countries the percentage had grown by somewhere between 5 and 10 points over the previous decade.

If you look at the proportion of those at the typical graduation age who have a degree, the numbers are also interesting. The largest percentage is in Iceland, at an amazing 63 per cent. Poland and Finland manage nearly 50 per cent. Ireland has an impressive 45 per cent, significantly beating the United Kingdom at just under 40 per cent. Outside of the OECD, the proportion in China is at around 20 per cent, but in 30 years this has shot up from a mere 1.8 per cent.

So where should all this be going? What are we trying to do with higher education? If it is mainly about careers and employment, what impact might very high participation levels be having on professions that involve significant skills not taught in universities? What future do we want to have, or not have, for apprenticeships? If higher education is not about vocational preparation, should we then logically want to have everyone go to university? No country has ever really addressed these issues. Some (for example, Ireland) set more and more ambitious targets for higher education participation, but without any real debate on the implications. If universities are, quite properly, not intended to accommodate social elites, should they also not be host to intellectual or knowledge-based elites?

Some have argued that high levels of university participation compromise standards and increase drop-out rates. I think we should treat such arguments with care, in case they mask social elitism. But perhaps the time has come for a much more explicit debate about higher education, what it is for and who should be encouraged to participate.

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9 Comments on “A graduate world”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    It’s interesting that you should raise this topic, and mention Canada’s graduate ratio (though that % may be skewed by immigration, as the majority of Canada’s 200,000+ immigrants per annum hold at least a first degree; so it’s not that 46% of Canadians proceed to higher education at university – as opposed to community college – level).

    Recently, there has been discussion in Canada about the purpose of university education because of the high levels of graduate unemployment and under-employment. I’m seeing this in my professional capacity also, working with clients who, five or so years ago, would never have come through my doors. Young Canadians with masters degrees, let alone first degrees, who are unemployed or working in retail or food service – or, in a couple of cases, distributing free newspapers out on the streets in all weathers. A recent documentary, Generation Jobless (http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episode/generation-jobless.html – but you’d need a Canadian IP to view this) examined this and asked questions about the value of higher education in an economy where employers ask for experience (and, it’s pointed out, degrees in “useful” fields, as opposed to social anthropology, philosophy, English and other humanities – though it’s worth noting that even graduates in the so-called “useful” fields also struggle to find their first professional job).

    As university, or at least a third-level qualification, continues to become the commodity most commonly possessed by young adults, it has become the expected currency for even halfway-decent jobs – it’s already clear that young people with secondary school/high school qualifications are now disadvantaged even in access to jobs that don’t currently require post-secondary education.

    Of course, the state of the economy has a lot to do with this situation; with unemployment at 7% and above, of course employers will exercise choice where they can and look for applicants with experience rather than a brand-new graduate with little to offer other than enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. At the same time, though, even the considerably lower unemployment in the prairie provinces and to an extent in British Columbia still masks higher new-graduate unemployment and under-employment.

    So what is a university education for nowadays? To students and graduates (and their parents), it’s to get a decent job. If that’s not happening, then what? You’re right that it’s time for a debate, particularly when degree courses continue to churn out graduates in particular fields where it’s well-known that there are no or very few jobs. Do universities have any kind of responsibility to their students and graduates to ensure that they’re equipped not only with knowledge but with relevant skills and – as far as possible – some experience?

  2. V.H Says:

    You can only have such a debate once you’ve got equal opportunity of entry for as things stand any such debate will be nothing more than an excuse to cull.
    And if nothing else, an education arms the person against creeping impingement on their citizenship.

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Good point VH. Having an educated community raises all boats, including those of taxi-drivers (and their customers). Subsititute the phrase ‘university education’ with ‘education’ and that’s a start to this debate. The words ‘apprenticeship’ and ‘vocational’ are often raised in debates on this topic. In Ireland the word for ‘student’ is MacLeinn, that is, Son of Learning – if that term doesn’t allude to an apprenticeship then I don’t know what does. An apprentice (to a trade or craft) is seen by some as a person who is not ‘academically minded’ and therefore not suited to a university education (oops sorry, education) -‘apprentice’ is almost a pejorative word in this arena. The word ‘vocational’ is often applied to those persons in the caring-for-others professions (nursing, teaching), and is aften associated with high esteem and generally lower pay when compared to others to are similarly qualified and experienced. It’s as if ‘those with a vocation’ (a calling) have to be treated differently to those ‘who go to university’. Let’s try to rid ourselves of some of the prejudices that are commonly associated with these words and seek education as a right and entitlement for all. It will enrich our society and lead to monumental social improvement.

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        In the world of oneupmanship tee-shirts with messages and insignia/emblems of prestigious universities (Harvard University, Oxford, etc)emblazoned on their fronts, I’m remineded of a tee-shirt I bought years ago from Private Eye (the UK satire mag) with a bogus coat-of-arms and the text IDONTGOTO UNIVERSITY…:)

  3. no-name Says:

    It seems excellent for the taxi driver you recently encountered to have had the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree as well as a postgraduate qualification, hopefully without accumulating too much personal debt. However, one must hope more strongly that he had proper qualifications to drive the taxi itself.

    There are many taxi drivers in Ireland who evidently believe that the both double yellow lines along the edge of the road and those red lanes marked with bicycles both signal safe and legal parking zones. This can be witnessed any day of the week one chooses to walk in Dublin along the portion of Grafton Street between College Green and Suffolk Street, for example. A factor that might be claimed to mitigate the evident ignorance of the taxi drivers who choose to do this is the fact that police also seem to be equally ignorant of the rules of the road, since they can frequently be spotted at the same locations walking casually along a string of taxis parked on double yellow lines, even on a pedestrian crossing, as the taxis await a turn in the stopping bay of a taxi rank. It is dumbfounding that the police ignore this, since there would be a healthy income to be derived for the state from using fines to enforce rules that are on the books already. However, the general lack of expertise of arbitrarily many samples of taxi drivers in Dublin extends to beyond the meaning of road signs and road markings to basic facts of local geography, and lack of enforcement of regulations by police does not explain taxi drivers’ gaps in knowledge of landmarks.

    One might say that education is a right; however, there is also an argument to consider to the effect that it is a duty of citizens to acquire an education. For many, for most people with whom I communicate, there are no pejorative connotations of the word “apprenticeship”. On the contrary, apprenticeships are thought sorely lacking in availability. There would be marked improvement of quality of life in Ireland and the UK if proper apprenticeships and related formal education processes existed for most spheres of economic engagement in society. Who would not prefer, over the alternative, the possibility of getting into a taxi in which the driver could demonstration possession of “The Knowledge”?

    Why should it be so easy for so many people to gain access to jobs for which they lack basic skills and knowledge? The situation appears to follows on one hand from not providing educational streams that feed into these jobs and on the other hand from people not being bothered about whether competently supplied services are available. It seems that a solution is in the direction you suggest: university education through the third level and beyond for the so-inclined aspiring “intellectual [and] knowledge-based elites”, professional education for the so-inclined aspiring professionals. It appears to profoundly confuse matters when society is configured such that both sorts of education are thought within the remit of universities.

  4. Eddie Says:

    In London, except the black taxis which is dominated by cockneys, all other taxi companies have drivers who were once the students of the post92 universities in Greater London. Indians,Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Nigerian and Malaysian graduate taxi drivers are employed by the mini taxi companies. When you phone for a txi from home, you will certainly meet one of them. I have met a few of them, and their tales are about their desperate attempts to get jobs; they do not reveal their work to their parents/relatives back at home as the only ones who do this job back home are school leavers.

    There are a good number of British graduates too who tend to militate towards the luxury end of the business .

    I met a couple graduate taxi drivers from the above countries in Edinburgh and in Aberdeen during my last year visit to Scotland. They say there were even a couple of MBAs!!

    Blair, Brown and that crowd. used to give pep talk about how India and China have hundreds of thousands of postgraduates in engineering, IT and other areas and we need to get our degree course entry up towards 50%. What they conveniently forgot to mention was that there were (are) hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates and postgraduates in these two countries who out number many times the above engineers and software engineers.

    Professor Malcolm Gillies of London Met has recently argued in THE about how his native Australia embraces overseas students. But he too conveniently forgot to mention that in Melbourne, taxi drivers are predominantly Indian /Asian graduates.. Whilst Australian universities bend over backwards to attract these South Asian students in large numbers, Australia desperately needs thousands of technicians. Hence, not long long ago PM Julia Gillard set aside billions of dollars of funding for technical and further education or TAFE which incensed Professor Steven Schwartz.

    These many universities in the UK, and these many graduates they are churning out. They are ending in streets as taxi drivers and wait, there will be graduate cleaners, graduate home decorators and painters .

    Well no senior management in any UK university got their bonuses by not expanding their faculties, and not calling theirs “a global university!!

  5. Al Says:

    Good blog today!
    One could argue that there is an assumption that the development of further education eventually leads to higher education, which may not necessarily be true.
    In Ireland this has occured alongside a degradation, intended or not, of further education and a lack of leadership in maintainng a systematic approach that allows people to develop their abilities to trade their skill services at a level in both quantative and qualitative senses.
    Funding is no substitute for leadership and direction…..

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    Perhaps this is due to my existential condition as an expat, somebody caught in-between cultures, hence particular sensitive to matters of difference, but whenever I am confronted by stats like the ones reported in today’s post regarding how well (or badly) a country is doing in comparison to another, in this case with regards to the number of graduates, I just find it difficult to accept them at face value. What lies behind such numbers is a complex dynamic *specific* to that particular country which has to do with national identity, conceptions of culture and cultural values again specific of the locale and, crucially, the relationship that universities have established over the centuries with the communities they belong to.

    I believe that the latter point is of particular importance for the general discussion regarding HE and who should participate. Setting national targets when it comes to graduates is not very useful unless one considers that some universities find themselves in the best position to serve their region, in terms up-grading workforce skills to fit regional needs, while others are better positioned to be educational global players. As the authors of this very interesting report ” Putting higher education in its place: the socio-political geographies of English universities” 2012 http://oro.open.ac.uk/34471/2/44ED51E6.pdf
    put it: “Region and university are involved in a complex dance of ‘image and cultural attractiveness’”, in other words place matters!

    • V.H Says:

      Yeah, you’d think, but no. If you examine how Ireland runs the education and training of medical doctors, (the same in the US). Where a strong union, for lets call a spade a spade that is what the IMO is, ditto the AMA calls the amount of students and therefore the output of the universities.
      I don’t know the situation as pertained in DCU, but for the utilitarian argument to work it has to be responsive to the general needs.


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