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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
My son was home from university over Christmas. He is in his final year studying Sociology and Popular Music. Conversations with relatives invariably focused upon what he was going to do when he finished. Sociology and Popular Music seemed to most of the family to fall into the Media Studies bag; “what on earth are you going to do with that?”. On hearing this I was catapulted back to an encounter with a particularly hard-nosed factory manager shortly after finishing my degree. Telling him I had an Arts degree prompted the scornful riposte “what are you going to do with that, paint the bloody place?” That was nearly 30 years ago and one wonders if much of substance has actually changed. The debate is still one of how many and what sorts of graduates are best for society. Intuitively, I’m in the “more of any sort” camp. Yet at the same time I am not so blind that I do not see potential problems, tensions, divisions, for the UK at any rate, ten years down the line, on current anticipated expansion.
At the heart of the problem, it seems to me that the discourse around the graduate labour market is dominated by the employer’s voice; their concerns and their expectations and which effectively generates only a partial view and distorts policy development. Thus, it suits the Government to encourage more young people into higher education under the guise of higher economic returns as part of their “opportunities for all” rhetoric. But they do not project to the difficulties that might be caused by a labour market, so influenced by this dominant discourse, where the supply of graduates is perceived by graduates themselves (and indeed society more generally) to outstrip demand. Of course, the employer has a legitimate stake in the discourse on how a society utilises its graduates but the power of this voice seems increasingly questionable and unhelpful. It has contributed to a creeping vocationalism within both school and university curriculums. Even “personal” development modules seem principally geared to addressing the employers’ agenda. Descriptors like “graduate”/ “non graduate” jobs and use of the graduate earnings premium to convince parents of the appropriateness of the higher education pathway post school impoverishes, rather than enlightens, our “common place” understandings of both higher education and the labour market more generally.
Proposed solutions seem to fall into “demand” or “supply” side arguments. What we often overlook in such debates is the voice of the graduate. The graduate’s own identity as a graduate. How significant is the dominant discourse in influencing aspirations and expectations amongst young people? What does the prospect of being a graduate really mean to an 18 year old leaving school in 2006? What does the conferment of graduate status by a strange man (invariably) in a gown really mean to that person three, four or five years later? Might we not be exacerbating the tensions surrounding a transition from higher education to work by creating unrealistic expectations in relation to “graduate” jobs and the “graduate” labour market? It is surely timely – 2010 is the target date for 50 per cent of young people to participate in higher education – to bring these questions and issues to the heart of our deliberations about higher education and employment. Is it too much to aspire to a notion of “graduateness” that encompasses a more radical, more enterprising, conception of knowledge and skill; one that incorporates a more mature sense of social responsibility and a view of a graduate career that is not solely anchored within a narrow employability agenda? Advancements here would surely create a resource within the nation as whole to assist us rise, rather than succumb, to the challenges we will face as regards the future of work.
In welcoming readers to the 2006 volume of Education + Training I must record my thanks to the editorial team of Vikki Smith, Vicky Harte, David Pollitt and Rachel Murawa for their efforts and support throughout 2005. My thanks also go to the Guest Editors of 2005, Erica Smith and Vikki Smith (“Apprenticeships”, Issue 4/5) and Harry Matlay (E&T in a small business context, Issue 8/9). These were particularly relevant and timely collections of papers and I am very grateful to these colleagues for their valuable contribution to the Journal.