Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Postgrads and Social Mobility

The Sutton trust reports today (7 February 2013  BBC News: Postgraduate courses ‘social mobility barrier’) that the rising cost of Postgraduate Courses is becoming a barrier to Social Mobility.

This is almost certainly true, but is it missing the point?  Why the sudden need by so many employers to employ postgraduates?

Few jobs that “require a degree” actually use either the knowledge acquired whilst doing that degree or the intellectual ability that a good undergraduate degree should develop.  Yet more and more jobs are being portrayed as “graduate professions”.

So we encourage more people (the now infamous 50%) to go to university, rack up huge debts and then find that there are too many graduates chasing too few jobs.

So are we now finding that employers who may get 400 or more applications for each job, deciding that they can be more selective and need to be more selective just to process the applications.  Too many jobs seem to require specific qualifications and specific experience – yet when you get the job do you actually need the knowledge or skills?  But by saying that you must have a Master’s Degree means that you can ask a junior clerk in HR to go through all applications and reject those who do not have such a degree – or if you manage all your recruitment online, a computer can filter out the excess applicants.  Some job seekers may hopefully self-select out and not apply.  It all makes recruitment easier.

But does it lead to the best person getting the job?  I don’t think that having someone with a Master’s Degree doing a higher level clerical job is necessarily a good idea; they will not be earning enough to pay their debts (so many move on earlier than the employer may want) and they will probably be frustrated being expected to “just do the job” and not try to be “too clever”. There may also be friction with older more established, but less qualified, employees.

I suspect that the race to get Postgraduate qualifications in many, if not most, situations is the job-seekers’ equivalent of the post-war arms race (lots of spending to no real effect).  It is madness.

The Sutton Trust is undoubtedly right in saying that Postgraduate Courses are becoming the preserve of the rich, but is making funding easier necessarily the right way to address this issue?  How soon until recruiters start requiring Doctorates for even junior roles?   Far better to try to tackle lazy recruiting.  Firms should look at the real requirements of a job and then select not “the most qualified applicant”, but the applicant who best matches the real requirements.  (Or of course if we really want a graduate workforce, we should look to create jobs that genuinely require the knowledge and skills associated with the best graduates.)

Not all jobs require degrees, many do not require A Levels, most require literacy, numeracy and articulacy plus a good dose of common sense and a work ethic.  If you have to do a Master’s degree to get that, there is something seriously wrong with our education system.


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