Higher Ed in Existential Crisis: Jobless in US, UK

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/15/2012 02:30:00 PM
Is is not particularly surprising to me that Anglophone bloggers in academia don't cover the topic much, but make no mistake--higher education is in crisis. Despite a lot of them being especially fond of rational choice theory, I suppose it's slightly discomforting to find themselves being criticized as rent-seekers instead of them criticizing various government personnel as such. The crux of the matter is this: How can you justify relatively cushy academic wages when college graduates can't find remunerative employment? While it's especially true of British higher education where major universities are uniformly funded by the government, it's also true for the American system where a large proportion of distinguished colleges are likewise state institutions.

(1) Karl Marx would positively adore the hapless US economy at the present time as a prime example of the inherent contradictions of capitalism as it lurches from crisis to crisis. What's more, the pace is accelerating with the S&L crisis of the early nineties, dot-com bust of the early noughties, 9/11+Enronitis shortly thereafter and the never-ending subprime debacle. The pace of these occurrences and their associated losses--not only in GDP but also employment terms--are accelerating. To add insult to injury for jobless college graduates, the next shoe to drop may very well be snowballing student debt.

The New York Times ran a fairly lengthy sob story over the weekend replete with jobless American youth and their towering student loans. [To which I say, go East, young Yank.] While it's indeed a sad story, it's not exactly new except maybe in academia where many prefer to ignore such problems. However, the NYT article further notes that the anticipated milestone of US student loans passing the trillion dollar mark has come and gone. As Buzz Lightyear said it best, to infinity and beyond. Although Americans' debt-loving lifestyles are known the world over, what is perhaps galling here is that these youth are handicapped so early in life by the stigma of hopelessness and joblessness. Or, in short, mommy and daddy may be as broke as their nation is, but they at least got to enjoy McMansions and monster SUVs for a while. The key number? 53.6% of all American college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The game will soon be up, rent-seekers at American universities. Take steps to fix your broken system, pronto, or you will justly bear the brunt of unhappy, unemployed graduates laden with student debt and their parents complaining about this fraud about college being the ticket to lifelong happiness or whatever Kool-Aid you keep regurgitating.

(2) As for the UK with similarly galling statistics--degree holders are essentially no more likely to find employment than those who went to the job market straight after secondary education--I must sheepishly admit that certain British educators may still be ignoring the problem here. It comes down to that chestnut concerning university being preparation for life instead of merely preparation for the world of work. Which is fine insofar as many students may share similar sentiments. However, where I part company is in denying that a major reason for going to college is economic: It is a perfectly reasonable expectation that an investment that you sink considerable time, effort and money into should help provide you with an acceptable standard of living instead of, say, saddling you with unpayable student debt so early in life.

Recently, the LSE held its Teaching Day 2012. While I usually follow it so I may improve my teaching skills and so forth, this year's event was notable in tacking the joblessness question head-on. The LSE being a rather uppity and left-leaning institution, however, I was dismayed to find few concessions to the idea that tertiary education should at least help find young people work. The keynote address of the Management department's Professor Amos Witztum sums up this approach:

The purpose of this talk is to argue that the answer to the role of education is embedded in the conception of society and the principles of its economic organisation. I will argue that the underlying justification for the current functional approach as if the role of society is limited to preparing people for working life is a-liberal and myopic. We will examine the organisational relevance of the decentralised promise of the economic system in the light of various long terms trends in the world of work and leisure as well as the little-talked of phenomenon of the rising levels of over-qualified workers. We will ask whether in such a context preparing someone for a job is enough to absolve society of its duties.

We will therefore go back to the drawing board to ask the question: what indeed is the purpose of education if, in general, we accept that it is to prepare people for life? The answer will be that it is to prepare people for life outside work. Here, however, a serious problem arises. While preparing people for the labour market seems morally neutral (as technology is, ostensibly, such), preparing them for life entails a judgement about the culture for which individuals should be prepared. This means that liberal views of capabilities and the like can no longer hide from the fact that the ‘good’ life is a social concept.
To me, it's all well and good to tout the fringe benefits of higher education--as long as you first deliver on the primary task of finding young people gainful employment to avoid both the social stigma of unemployment and the wherewithal to pursue the finer things in life such as intellectual pursuits. Find your students work that is rewarding and remunerative first, then consider the rest.

Otherwise, the college rip-off taunt resonates now more now than as fees rise and career opportunities dwindle. And while Anglophone audiences often forget it, there are other systems of higher education that have provided better results which the rest of the world should probably study more closely if they are practically-minded.