I missed all the fun in the #Demo2010 demonstrations today, but I have some thoughts about it. My feelings are very mixed.
On the one hand as a parent and as a citizen I think that crippling young people with debt, getting them into a habit of indebtedness, impacting on their future ability to marry, raise families and buy houses, is a terrible idea. I grew up in a Britain where there was no real dissent from the idea that education was inherently good; I was (along with a lot of people my age) the first person in my family’s history to go to university. I studied Electrical Engineering, I mostly worked hard and I earned the degree I was awarded.
But something changed. It changed quite fast and it changed very profoundly. Education became a mechanism to manipulate unemployment figures by keeping young people out of the depressed job market. The Government of the day began to promote the fatuous idea that because graduates were in the top ten percent of income earners and intelligence, by increasing the proportion of people going to university we would increase the number of people in the top ten percent of income and intelligence. Any statistician will tell you that this is nonsense.
So this accelerated the move away form trades to pretending that everything was a profession. Ironically, I moved into IT, which I think is the last great apprenticeship trade, at a time when people were starting to study for “degrees” in “hairdressing and salon management”. I am an advocate for vocational courses – NVQs – but many of these new degrees from new universities rightly attract derision. Among the worst is [[W:Thames Valley university]] which teaches a BSc degree in [[W:homeopathy]], which is simply not science by any recognisable definition.
So now we have a country in which people seriously expect to work for less than half their lifespan. Yes, that is effectively what is being said. There is typical tabloid rage when anyone mentions raising the retirement age (matched only by the tabloid rage over ageism when demonstrably talented people are forced to retire) but we cannot, we simply cannot, afford to pay for two decades of education and two decades of retirement from four decades of work, a fair bit of which will be spent learning the job.
And now the students are revolting. I think they are right to revolt, but for the wrong reasons. I would hazard a guess that half of all graduates today should really have studied a vocational course or entered a profession through the ranks, as with a friend of mine who is now a partner in a successful firm of solicitors. Accountancy and the law both used to take school leavers, teach them the profession as clerks and allow them to rise to partnership if they had the wit and the work ethic. Now people want a degree for entry to trades that simply don’t need it.
Students should be campaigning for a more diverse economy and for more creative ways of supporting continuing education while in work. Hilarious though it might be to see student riots six months in to a new Tory Government, the memories it evokes draw these parallels and lead one to the conclusion that something is just wrong about the expectations being presented to young people today.
Here’s how deluded they are: one of my sons wants to be an engineer and thinks he’ll actually make money doing it. How crazy is that?