Monday, 29 April 2019

On "Overeducation"

Articles like this boil my piss. According to the BBC, a third of all graduates are "overeducated" for the jobs they currently have. This is up by over a fifth since 1992, and nearly a quarter of all workers in London are overeducated for their job versus 16% for the national background. At least according to the Office for National Statistics. It goes on to say that while a degree is most often a passport to higher wages/salaries, some of these stats can be explained by graduates deliberately choosing to do jobs. That makes it alright then.

Well, it does acknowledge that another explanation might be worth considering. "It can also be seen as a form of underemployment, hence contributing to the extent of labour market slack". How very nice, but it's telling the only explanation the ONS offers is faux neutral gubbins about people plumping for jobs/careers that pay less. Which is what you would expect from an institution inflected with bourgeois common sense. The system can't ever be wrong, it's about the wrong choices.

In sociology there is a very simple rule. If one or two people believe or do something, it's a foible thing. If lots believe or do something, then we have evidence of social behaviour, of dynamics working between and through and moving masses of people. It suggests something's going on that might warrant further investigation. In the case of "overeducation", why is their an oversupply of graduates when the jobs aren't there?

In the first place, successive governments have encouraged large numbers of young people to move into higher education. You can use the "meeting the needs of business" argument, considering the complexity of the division of labour and the premium placed on technical and networking/interpersonal skills which, among other things, university helps cultivate. And there are other, more cynical considerations to think about. Moving young people straight from school to college or sixth form and then university keeps them off the unemployment stats, and away from the social security bill. The days of students claiming Housing Benefit to pay the rent lie three decades in the past. There is the saddling of young people up with unservicable mountains of debt, which nevertheless can dampen any seditious thoughts some might otherwise have. The conservatising effects of mortgages, for example, are long appreciated by leftists and something that wasn't lost on one Margaret Thatcher either. And by stripping out grants and limiting loans, large numbers of students allow for a relatively cheap pool of casualised-but-fit labour. Indeed, a good chunk of the "overeducated" are students carrying on with their student jobs post-graduation.

And then there is the treatment of the job market as if it's some force of nature, and it's up to us human beings to adapt to its impersonal whims. Jog on. The prevalence of casualised and deskilled jobs isn't a pause for liberal hand-wringing, it's a call for action. A weak labour movement, the reasons for which are legion, means low pay and lack of job security is pretty standard in the UK job market. To blame here are the actions of, yes, successive governments for the last 40 years. Tory or Labour, both have refused to see themselves as an actor within the economy (except organising against organising workers) but rather as a regulator of last resort. This has meant the Tory and LibDem cuts programme have ripped away hundreds of thousands of graduate jobs from the public sector, jobs which would have provided outlets for graduate skills. For example, consider Stoke's child care scandal, partly down to too few resources and too heavy workloads. How might that be fixed? By employing more social workers. i.e. Graduates. If government was concerned about this, then it could make its own contribution instead of crowing about the cutting up of full-time roles into part-time and zero hours contracts and proclaiming it a "jobs miracle".

Third, what is and what isn't a graduate and non-graduate job? Humanities students, picked out in the BBC article, as perennial under achievers in fact tend to have higher business start up rates than business studies students. Does the ONS consider such graduates to be "too educated" for running a small business? Is a fine art graduate overeducated for running a shop flogging their wares whereas a business management graduate peddling a tuck shop isn't? Likewise, many jobs are badged as graduate jobs when they're nothing of the sort. In my previous job, I recall checking out a jobs fair in Hanley where call centre work on the lowest possible salary were billed graduate jobs. When so much work is unnecessary and comprises of make-work, correspondingly the fetishism for training, staff development, and work-based qualifications have grown - a simulacra of personal growth, if you like, designed to give work meaning and worth when it is lacking for so many. Such jobs might not require any specialist skills or the much vaunted transferable skills, but "graduateness" as an entry point confers upon them a pretence of professional authenticity.

And can we talk about the character of education as well? Why should a degree be judged solely in terms of career outcomes? University study can be intrinsically enriching as well as socially productive outside the narrow nexus of economic exploitation and surplus extraction.

With every single point, this latest ONS release and the BBC write up naturalises what is social and historical, depoliticises what is political by hiding behind choice, and deliberately fights shy of any account that tries explaining this state of affairs in terms of social processes, let alone class dynamics. The truth is one can never be overeducated. The problem is the overpreponderance of unfulfilling, narrow, and crap-paying jobs, and tackling that requires taking on vested class interests and the system of exploitation itself.


PlebJames said...

I was annoyed by that reporting too.

"... tackling that requires taking on vested class interests and the system of exploitation itself."
...what significant social issue doesn't?
I get the impression more and more people are realising that PERHAPS many of these things are linked. Now, where did I put my pitchfork?

Dialectician1 said...

“The truth is one can never be overeducated. The problem is the over-preponderance of unfulfilling, narrow, and crap-paying jobs, and tackling that requires taking on vested class interests and the system of exploitation itself.”

It is a shame that you wait until the final paragraph to make the most salient point. How can anyone ever be over educated? A more sociologically nuanced piece would have questioned the ‘commodification of learning’. Education is not a simple binary between extrinsic & intrinsic worth. Education is about human enlightenment. You cannot have a, so-called, ‘bad education’. You are either enlightened or you are not. If what you have learned in the past is proved to be wrong, the process of reflection upon error is an intrinsic part of what it means to be educated. If you do not learn from your mistakes, you have not been educated. Just ask Socrates.

Ken said...

Similarly, the Social Mobility report points to the cuts in adult education provision as a factor in the stasis in social mobility. I’m all for expanding it, however I’m not convinced that this will help as the main driver of post-war social mobility of men was the expansion of professional and related white collar jobs which has gone into reverse. Also, it dodges the very tricky problem of what is to count as social mobility for women. A more educated public is always better than a less educated one, but it’s not a route upward for individuals, more a defence against joining the precariat.

Matte Blk said...