Ed West

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing
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A-Level results are announced today, and with it the happy news that a record number of university places have been offered. About 42 per cent of 18-year-olds in England will go to university, but we're still some way behind the world's leader, South Korea, where two-thirds of young people achieve a degree. And how's that going?

Seongho Lee, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, criticizes what he calls 'college education inflation'. Not all students are suited for college, he says, and across institutions, their experience can be inconsistent. 'It’s not higher education anymore,' he says. 'It’s just an extension of high school.' And sub-par institutions leave graduates ill-prepared for the job market. In recent years, the unemployment rate for new graduates in Korea has topped 30 per cent.

Korea is not alone; in the West it has been increasingly obvious for some time that there is no economic demand for such large numbers of university places, as this depressing piece in May pointed out:

'The majority of jobs being created today do not require degree-level qualifications. In the US in 2010, 20 per cent of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, 43 per cent required a high-school education, and 26 per cent did not even require that. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of young people study for degrees. This means over half the people gaining degrees today will find themselves working in jobs that don’t require one.'

This is starkly illustrated on the Unistat website, where you can see what sorts of jobs people get after taking each course. In many of the humanities courses, only a fairly small proportion of graduates go into managerial courses, and average salaries are low.

Maybe that doesn't necessarily matter, since being a manager isn't everything, except that the time and money invested in a course which brings almost no financial benefit may lead to disappointment and bitterness. I think it's not an exaggeration to say that some of the teenagers being offered degrees in social science courses are being conned. Furthermore, even some supposedly vocational degrees are training people to do jobs that just do not exist.

To take one example, cited by Bryan Caplan in his upcoming book The Case Against Education, the number of students earning communication or journalism degrees in a typical year in the US 'exceeds total employment in print, web, and broadcast journalism'. It goes without saying that only a tiny number of these graduates will find jobs in this industry after university, and that the skills they learned will not be transferable.

Caplan's main argument against education is that most of the benefits of university attendance are down to signalling; attending a three or four-year course signals to future employers that you have some degree of intelligence and resilience, but there are far easier, cheaper and quicker ways of doing this. And for society in general it leads to the problem of elite oversupply, the great theory of Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut. As Turchin points out:

'Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.'

This results in a number of angry, aggrieved graduates unable to find the positions they feel their education warrants, as well as not being able to afford the housing and financial stability necessary for family formation. They become like a sort of gender-neutral 'bare branches' of the 21st century.

In the west today there are two sections of society driving political polarisation: a working-class opposed to multiculturalism who are moving from the left to the radical right; and middle-class graduates enraged at being left behind by the super-rich, and attracted to Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and others on the radical left. As long as huge numbers attend university courses that provide few material rewards there will be an inexhaustible supply of the latter.

Anyway, I'm not trying to ruin anyone's day, and many, perhaps most university degrees are worthwhile to the individual and good for society (you may have noticed that all the people quoted here are academics).

And even if these years are not financially rewarding, just enjoy the time there for the friends and the experience, before the weight of the world crushes your spirit and you find yourself lying awake at night worrying, night after night after night.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articleSocietycultureuniversities