Increasing the divide

A few years ago I was debating the issue of unpaid internships and the effect of this on social mobility.  The common theme at the time was that paying for internships would solve the problem. It was a compelling argument because of it’s simplicity, but fundamentally wrong.

One of the biggest issues with internships is the availability and transparency of opportunity. When opportunities are only available to those that are in the know, that are connected, or that are referred, paying rather than solving the problem of access just exacerbates it. This isn’t to say that internships should be unpaid, far from it, but that it needs to be combined with other systemic changes.

There is a similar argument to be played out in relation to university fees. The simple argument goes that by charging for university you restrict the number of entrants from lower social classes. Again, it is a compelling one. But one that isn’t backed up by data. Simply, there is nothing that would suggest that free education, without means testing, would do anything that subsidise the dominant middle classes.

In 2015, when the idea was mooted, a total cost of £10bn per annum was suggested to introduce this measure, equivalent to 11.5% of the UK education budget. Which begs the question what could be achieved by investing this money in primary and secondary education in areas with the lowest social mobility?

If you are an 18 year old in London and the South East you are more likely to go to university than if you are an 18 year old in any other part of the UK, by quite a significant margin. In fact, when you start to look at the entrants by parliamentary constituency, there is significant correlation with the areas of the greater social mobility highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission.

Assuming there is a finite amount of money available to government, the evidence clearly suggests that the best bet for improving social mobility is investment in the compulsory education system in those areas where the outcomes of young people are the lowest. That’s before we consider the alternative routes into the labour market other than university, such as apprenticeships.

The idea of free university is an appealing one, but unless significant changes are made to the education outcomes of those in the social mobility cold spots, it will do little to benefit social change. Instead, it will disproportionately benefit those who already have better outcomes and continue to widen the social divide.

Are you in A job or THE job?

Most of us in our careers will move between jobs and employers. We will spend time in roles that we love and roles that we need to do. The ability to recognise which type of role you’re doing, and why, is critical to being both successful and happy.

You’ll do “a job” for a number of different reasons. It might be necessity – needing to pay the bills put food on the table. It might be development – learning a new skill, getting sector or management experience. Or it might be more personal – the need to stretch or push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Doing a job is fine. It gets you where you need to be at the time that you need to be there, it provides a means to an end – as long as you know the end that you’re after. It only becomes a problem when you forget and confuse it with being “the job” and then it seems to lack something else.

By this I don’t mean that there is one perfect ideal role for all of us. For some that may be the case, for others there will be more than one. It really depends on your career, your drive and your desire. And of course, “the job” may not be a constant state over time – things change.

Working in “the job” has a higher level of fulfilment, it meets your needs on more than a functional level. It could be the people who you’re working with, the fit between your work and home. It might be the ability to do things that you’ve always wanted to do, or work in an industry that you’ve always wanted to be in.

When we look back over our careers, I bet we can all differentiate between the two. Sometimes it is harder to do so in the moment. So if you’re feeling downbeat or ill at ease with your current employment situation, ask yourself – is this a means to an end, or an end in itself? If you can be clear where you’re at, why you’re there and where you’re going next, the whole thing becomes a lot more tenable and clear.

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?