Festus was the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for West Ham constituency at 2015 General Election. He runs his own business and also works in Parliament.
Growing up as a child, I recall my mother and father taking turns during family prayer before they went to work. In those prayers – well, the parts I still remember, since I was half asleep most times – they would pray, among other things, that their children grow up to become “doctors, lawyers, engineers”.
Fast forward several decades and none of us took up any of those professions. We mostly went into teaching and entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, given their preferred career choices, a clear message was being sent by mum and dad – via God, I hasten to add – that not going to university was not an option.
While we all mostly went to university and pursued alternative professional careers, I cannot knock the ambition our parents had for us.
They then, like many well-meaning parents today, still see a university degree as the primary way out of poverty, the best vehicle for upward social mobility and safest landing surface in the event of an economic downturn. For the most part, these assumptions are accurate.
For example, the 2010 Browne Review into higher education funding:
“found that graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next. Higher education enables individuals from low-income backgrounds to enter higher status jobs and increase their earnings.”
Quite bluntly, smart money would be on getting a good degree – especially if you are from a poorer background. However, this ‘university degree dividend’ may no longer be as profitable as it used to be.
The Intergenerational Foundation recently published a paper entitled ‘The Graduate Premium: Manna, Myth or Plain Mis-selling?’ in which some powerful arguments were made in sharp contrast to the generally accepted views about the financial benefits of a degree.
For example, the report states that aside from Japan, the United Kingdom produces more over-qualified workers than any other OECD country.
While it does not specify what over-qualified means in the context of graduates, I can see the author’s argument when he posits that “As the ceiling at which a degree is necessary has been lowered, estate agents, recruitment agencies and even fitness gyms now demand a degree.” Personally, I was made aware of a UK call centre that had a university degree as a criterion for applicants.
I will digress a little in saying that a university degree from a good school isn’t just about gaining subject specific knowledge, but about developing a certain way of thinking and a work ethic, both of which are surely valuable to any employer.
Nevertheless, and in direct reference to a degree dividend, it is easy to see why the rewards are diminishing when low-paying jobs are increasingly requiring degrees at point of entry.
I think we need to start asking serious questions the social prestige degrees continue to enjoy, and how helpful this is to our wider economy when the costs of acquiring one are mounting and the benefits shrinking – especially given that other factors such as social networks, gender, race, and class all help to determine our access to the higher-paying professions.
Though I went on to read for my master’s degree at a Russell Group school, my main employment all my adult life has been outside the area of my formal education. I first tried my hand at business at the young age of 16 and failed a few times at different ventures until the age of 23. I have not looked back since.
While I can’t necessarily extricate my informal business education from my formal academic background, I can categorically say that the latter did not make me an entrepreneur and employer.
In a discussion with fellow business owners recently one of them, who runs a construction engineering company, told me he felt “university degrees are now overrated” while another, who just setup a tech business, was rather morose about ‘why we keep churning out degree holders less prepared for the workplace”. I couldn’t disagree with both these friends.
We have a historic skills shortage in Britain which is costing our economy and undermining social stability – yet I doubt anyone can say we have a shortage of degree holders.
I fear that we are not placing enough emphasis on vocational education and apprenticeships in a way that boost their status relative to that of a university degree.
This Conservative government has made good progress in raising the profile of apprenticeships and the vocational education sector.
However, and given the scale of skills shortage we have and the need for stronger economic growth, we may need to be more aggressive in reforming our education system.