Abolishing university fees is not the answer

Our problems with education are much deeper and more complicated than the debate about whether university fees should be free or not. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that making our current university system free would be catastrophic financial mistake that would increased debt without providing the necessary economic benefit to the country.

Let’s consider the two arguments for attending and progressing through higher education. Many people argue that learning is simply an enriching process that is rewarding for the individual and broadly beneficial to society as a whole. I’ve heard this expressed on numerous occasions. The problem with this argument is that places value and priority on only one form of learning or enrichment, generally based on the proponent’s own personal experience.

One could reasonably see an argument that taking a year out and travelling across Asia, learning about different cultures, seeing different cultural sites and immersing yourself in the culture could be equally, if not more, enriching to the individual. Or spending time in your bedroom pulling apart computers, searching the internet and learning about how to code, But of course, we don’t see many people proposing that the state should fund people’s travels and trips or internet explorations in their bedroom.

The second, more plausible, argument is that the country should have a high skilled economy and this is driven by university attendance. The problem with this argument is that the proponents of fee free university attendance don’t discriminate in their approach to the courses that should be available and the number of places. In other words, the value of the subsidy that is placed on a medical degree is exactly the same as the value that is placed on a degree in forensic psychology. Yet demand for the skills in the labour market is entirely different.

Add to this the complexity of the entry requirements for various subjects and the provision of places not matching with the needs of the economy (we reject bright, dedicated students away from degrees in medicine and then have shortages of doctors and a need to hire in from abroad) and you have a highly imperfect system. Is this a system we want to subsidise at significant cost to the taxpayer? Personally, my answer is no.

It seems to me that a level of government subsidy in the subjects that we are short of and need to build a thriving and dynamic economy, could and should be a good thing. But that should also extend into postgraduate development and in technical and professional development in vocational education – in the way that we’ve seen this applied to teacher training. Simply, applying a one size fits all approach to tertiary education misses the point and is a blunt and inefficient use of taxpayers’ money.

A well though through economic and industrial strategy linked to educational end vocational incentives for the subjects with skills shortages supported by a realistic and progressive graduate tax for other subjects feels like a more sensible and joined up way of approaching the topic. The links between education, skills and the country’s economic prosperity are complex and interwoven, but the job of government is to unpick them for the benefit of all – not simply as a means to buy votes.

Get a proper job

In my middle teens, I dreamed of owning and running my own restaurant. It combined my love of cooking, food and entertaining with an interest in business and management. When I expressed this view to those influential in my life, the consensus was pretty clear – get a proper job.

Many years later, I’m sure the advice was well-meaning and correct. I’m not sure the world needs another mediocre restaurateur (although it could be argued that they didn’t need another mediocre HR Director either) and I struggle to think of a day I’ve not wanted to go in to work.

I wonder how many students in college and university are also being advised about which jobs and careers are “proper” and which ones they should avoid. And how are the judgments made about the “right” career paths. What makes counting other people’s money or learning and arguing a set of created laws, “proper” and yet feeding them or building their houses somehow less…well, concrete?

Is the heart of the issue is our approach to education and skills and the perceived link to future wealth and prosperity.? “Proper jobs” are seen as more secure, better paying and require more skills. And whilst this is attractive in it’s simplicity, it is hard to see how a good apprenticeship in engineering will place you in a less advantageous position than, say, a degree in criminology.

With the additional complexity of trying to understand which sectors and roles will be in increasing demand and which will see the largest impact of automation (and in what time frame), the definition of a “proper job” becomes significantly more about prejudice and perception than any predictable outcome of future fortune.

Perhaps our biggest fault as a society has been to overlook the importance of skilled, technically able careers and replace it with the fetishisation of “management” and “professionalism”. Not only are we encouraging young people away from careers that they might actually enjoy and find fulfilling, but have also inadvertently created skills and labour shortages in many essential areas.

I may not have made a very good restaurateur, I’m at peace with that, but I certainly value those people around me that are brilliantly skilled in their work and who have a depth of technical expertise in their fields that I am in awe of. And let’s face it, in a post apocalyptic society, who would you rather have on your side – a farmer, a builder and an engineer or a banker, a social media consultant and a HRD?

Education is more important than politics

My son was born in February 2000. That may seem an unimportant fact, and in truth it is, other than it places him close to being born at the turn of the millennium. At the time of his birth, the Secretary of State for Education was David Blunkett.

As he now approaches his 17th birthday (my son, not Blunkett) and enters in to the last stage of his secondary education, Justine Greening is the holder of the same position.

What I find quite remarkable is that by the time he reaches the end of his studies in spring 2018, and assuming no further changes, there will have been a total of NINE holders of this position. At present, the average tenure of the person responsible for education, during his lifetime, falls short of two years.

It isn’t an unusual pattern, in fact you have to go back to 1918 and Herbert Fisher to find anyone holding the post for longer than five years. To provide comparison, the average tenure of a CEO is somewhere close to ten years.

It seems unsurprising that the education sector is failing to deliver the outcomes required when the leadership, direction and ethos change with such frequency. Particularly when education policy is often tainted by the personal experiences of the senior person in charge – the “it didn’t do me any harm” effect.

When interest rates were placed in the hands of the Monetary Policy Committee in 1997, the rationale was to remove political interference and to focus instead on long-term stability and growth. What we see now is a group of experts, bringing different views, coming together to achieve a consensus for the benefit of the country’s economy as a whole.

There feels little, more important to the future prosperity of the country than the education system. Having spent time in and around schools over the last twenty years, the biggest complaint is not perhaps what one might believe – funding, but the overwhelming sense of disorientation and fatigue caused by the multiple initiatives and changes in direction from above.

If we are serious in reinventing the education system in the country, if we believe that it has a fundamental role to play in the future success of the country and the economy, then it requires us to think differently about the way in which policy is set and how we create a single sustainable and stable approach to our education system.

The obvious, but perhaps unpalatable, answer is to take policy out of the hands of government and to place it in the hands of a panel of experts drawn from academia, education, business and other areas and overseen by a cross party group of MPs and with overall accountability to the Secretary of State. Build consensus on our education policy for the long-term, remove personal bias and create stability.

The reality is, that it would take a brave and courageous government to hand away one of their main political bargaining chips. But in turn that begs the question;

Is our education system there to serve the careers of politicians, or to serve the country?

You don’t need a degree to work in HR

If you went to University, let me ask you a question:

How much of the taught subject matter are you using in your work?

I asked myself the same question and the answer is “very little”.

I am sure that there are certain professions, certain vocations where the content matter of a university degree is a necessity. And yet, in the majority of roles, I’m not so sure.

The CIPD released a brilliant piece of research last week highlighting the expansion of Higher Education in the UK and the resultant increase in graduates working in historically “non-graduate” roles.

There are several hypotheses to explain this, some with positive outcomes, some without.

Two things immediately strike me as being highly culpable in this trend,

  • the homogenisation of higher education post the 1992 reforms
  • the insistence of businesses to require degrees for non-degree roles

I’ll leave the first for people better placed to comment on the education sector (although you can check out this brilliant assessment from Peter Scott as a start).

I want to talk about the second point.

Why do I think we ask for degrees?

  • We’re lazy. We ask for a degree when no degree is necessary because simply it makes life easier.
  • We lack creativity and fall foul of unconscious bias. We have degrees and therefore it must be a requirement.

Don’t believe me? I ran a search on Changeboard of the HR jobs that specifically called out a degree as a requirement in the ad and there were over 170, (I don’t mean to pick on Changeboard, I did the same search on HR Magazine and got a similar return).

With over 20 years working in the profession, I’m yet to come across a role where a degree is of critical value. And of course, the irony is that in the case of HR, the degree will often be in a subject matter that probably isn’t relevant to the role.

We’re stuck in the past and assuming that a degree in some way differentiates the ability of the candidate, but more importantly we are sending out a message that you have to have a degree to work in HR. A pattern that is replicated across numerous other roles and professions.

There are certain life skills, there are certain intellectual processes that do come from study, I complete get that. But can they be obtained in other ways? Of course.

Our duty as a profession is to challenge the preconceptions of requirements, to throw our doors open more widely and to make our assessment and selection processes based on genuine capability, talent and potential. Not on meaningless qualifications.

But if we can’t do that within our own recruitment, what chance have we got in other areas of the business? We need to get our own house in order and be ruthless with our own professional approach.

Let me put it simply,

You don’t need a degree to work in HR.

So let’s stop saying you do.