Opinion: A degree is no longer about education, it’s about investment

“Government to delude graduates over employment prospects.” As if you would ever read a headline like that. But seeing through government spin concerning how it attempts to deal with the uncertain prospects for 300,000 students graduating this year, you should certainly think it.

The government has apparently been attempting to encourage blue-chip firms to provide low-paid internships, in exchange for CV-padding spiel for graduates, to aid them in an increasingly competitive and internationalised job market. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7821629.stm

There are many problems with this. Not least, the implication that UK students have no relevant, valuable work experience upon graduation in the first place. As a recruit to a graduate scheme in a major auditing firm, I know how even reputable, well-managed organisations can initially struggle to find meaningful work for graduates beyond photocopying and filing, despite their glossy recruitment brochures assuring you that you will experience real responsibility from day one.

No doubt the government is used to the creation of bureaucracy and waste through hiring people for the purpose of job creation alone, it therefore seems preposterous that it should attempt to be didactic towards the private sector, which currently for some reason decides to hire people in order to add value and maximise shareholder returns. Admittedly, in terms of public relations, it is cheaper and provides just as much in the way of column inches for a bank to switch from sponsoring a local charity to recruiting more interns, not least because of the free word of mouth it generates.

Yet, it is hardly as though in a time when firms have downsized operations as a consequence of market freefall, that any meaningful work will be delegated to interns anyhow, therefore it is a complete fallacy that this dilemma is being either mitigated or solved.

The economic problem is being ignored: the supply of graduates exceeds the jobs available to them.

So what is the solution?

I think firstly, the government’s attitude towards the marketing of what the value of a degree offers, actually needs to change. Under Labour, a degree is no longer about education, it’s about making a longer-term investment (paying over £12k in tuition fees I think qualifies as that) and making a good return on it – not that we should have to pay for it. There is far greater value in the actual experience of a university education than the process of gaining knowledge or the certificate you receive upon graduation for wall-framing or keeping in a drawer.

It’s really about the life skills you should have gained, such as (this is not an exhaustive list): being personally organised, communicating effectively, functioning in diverse teams, confidently articulating presentations, writing concise reports, using your initiative in the absence of management etc. If you didn’t gain such skills, you probably didn’t get your money’s worth. It’s also about that extended network of friends, or associates you make, with people from all over the country if not the world: Repeating that process of meeting or living with new people, experiencing different cultures, opinions and attitudes, joining societies, gaining new hobbies and sports.

The socialisation process, among all of the other experiences throughout the education system is amid some of the most important preparation, which should aid your career. Arguably, you’re investing in the opportunity to experience it, despite it being something that you shouldn’t have to pay for, or put a price on.

Therefore, the real problem concerns what you consider to be the end-goal. If you didn’t have the foresight to apply for an internship or work placement yourself whilst studying, then what was the purpose of gaining a degree and why is the government only attempting to help you at the other end, when your university careers service should help you right from the beginning for the benefit of their rankings and reputation?

Alan Muhammed currently works for the Liberal Democrats, on the National Campaigns Team. He is a former Guildford councillor and a graduate of Warwick Business School.

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