Posted tagged ‘graduates’

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

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Universities and political elites

July 24, 2017

Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.

If you’re passing our laws, do we want you to be educated?

June 14, 2011

When I worked in Trinity College Dublin, every time a member of the Irish government took an interest in a higher education issue, we tended to remind ourselves where he or she went to university. If they were graduates, the chances were that it was of University College Dublin (or more rarely, Cork or Galway). Almost never TCD, which until relatively recently had been ‘banned’ by the Roman Catholic Church.  So we often wondered whether the ministers would be tempted to give special support to their alma mater – which was almost never us.

During the last ten years in DCU it was, in some ways, the same thing. As a very new university we had no graduates in government. But then again it was not the same, because we were active in areas that were close to the politicians’ hearts, and I have to say we received some strong political backing across all parties. I never felt we were disadvantaged. But I remember a local councillor once saying that we should not in any case want all the politicians to be graduates, because if they were, how could they truly represent all those disadvantaged constituents without degrees. A fair point?

Now, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has analysed the higher education background (or in some cases, lack of one) of America’s state and national legislators. They have found that state legislators have varied backgrounds that, while not precisely reflecting those of their constituents, at least are not fundamentally different; most are graduates, but some are not, and the degrees they may have are awarded by an interesting variety of institutions. Federal legislators – members of Congress and Senators – on the other hand are overwhelmingly likely to be graduates of leading universities or have higher degrees.

It’s a tricky issue. Politics at the highest level is not an amateur pursuit, or should not be. We really should not be saying that what we offer as educators is not important enough for us to want our politicians to have it. But then again, we should not want our politicians to see themselves as members of en elite. So how should we, as higher education institutions, present ourselves in this matter?

I think we should want our politicians to be educated, to the greatest possible degree. But I think we should ensure that our universities and colleges are places for the people, all of them, even those that won’t proceed to a degree there. We should be places that welcome all members of the community, and we should have both events and facilities that are there for them. We should provide access to those wanting to use sports facilities, or catering facilities, or occasional lectures, workshops and courses. We should want to welcome the very young and the very old. If we do that, then our association with national decision-makers will seem right.

What’s your degree worth?

May 30, 2011

It is often claimed that university graduates earn significantly more than those without higher education qualifications. But in the United States at least (and certainly on this side of the Atlantic also) not every degree has the same impact on earning power. The US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has published details of median earnings enjoyed by graduates from certain university degree programmes, and it is clear from the figures that some graduates are able to earn considerably more than others. The figures are median earnings, so that they do not represent the upper limits of earning power.

The highest median salaries, according to this list, are enjoyed by graduates of petroleum engineering ($120,000), while the lowest pay can be expected by graduates of counselling psychology ($29,000). Other degrees whose graduates are very good earners are pharmaceutical sciences ($105,000), computer science ($98,000) and aerospace engineering ($87,000). In fact, engineers overall are the highest earners. Other poorly paid graduates have degrees in theology ($38,000), social work ($39,000), botany ($42,000).

What this tells us is that some graduates can indeed fairly quickly command high salaries, but that other are far less likely to be able to covert their degrees into pay. While it is easy to see why petroleum engineers are in demand and thus well paid, it is harder to see the reason for either high or low pay in other professions that require higher education qualifications. Some of it is connected with the value that we, as a society, either do or do not attach to certain jobs.

Assuming the figures published in the Chronicle are not wholly out of line with the position in this part of the world, they should raise certain questions in the debate on university funding and tuition fees. If certain degrees don’t secure higher salaries, then the case for graduate contributions in those fields is weak. This might suggest that tuition fees (where they exist) should not be the same across all subject areas.

Too many lawyers

July 21, 2008

Some time ago I managed to attract some attention by saying that Ireland didn’t need any more lawyers. My starting point was that too many parents were pushing their children into law as a career choice, and that the glut of lawyers would make us a more and more litigious society. Now that we are experiencing an economic downturn – temporary, we hope and trust – my fear is that this trend will accelerate, as people imagine that law is a safe choice.

As I am a lawyer myself by background, I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong as such with wanting to be a lawyer. But while there are a number of good reasons for wanting to go into the legal profession, having the right number of points isn’t one of them. And a country that has too many lawyers pays a high price – in the cost of insurance in particular.

This country needs more people who will take risks and start things – who will be entrepreneurial and innovative. We need more start-up businesses, more social entrepreneurs, more scientific innovators, more people in independent trades. These are the people who will help us to the next level of success and prosperity. We know very well what skills are needed to achieve that, but the pattern of higher education choices doesn’t match that. This is something we shall have to address, or we shall all pay the price.