Lost Generation? Paying more for less

With customers queuing to get into HE, it would be irrational from a business point of view for government not to raise fees as high as it can. It is therefore almost inevitable that – urged on by the Russell Group – the recommendations of the Browne review will be accepted and fees raised for 2011 entry variably by course and institution to create a free market in undergraduate HE to match that already existing for postgraduates and overseas students. This is notwithstanding the previous anti-fees policy of the Lib Dems for whom so many students apparently voted.

What concerns government is how much the market will bear – between £5,000 and £7,000 per annum by most current estimates, though with the Magic Five (Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and LSE) able to go over £20,000 for nearly all their courses. Oxford has been saying for many years it needs this much just to cover its annual undergraduate teaching costs and it is still cheaper than the private school fees that the parents of approximately half its entrants have paid previously.

Despite promises of bursaries and scholarships, such fees will take higher level education beyond the aspirations of most school leavers who are unwilling to shoulder the burden of this additional debt. As the school leaving age rises to 18 in 2015, government clearly expects them to settle for cut-price, second-rate provision in local former-polytechnics, or to enter apprenticeships without jobs in FE colleges as these predictably replay 1980s Training Without Jobs (Finn 1987).

Meanwhile, outside the university bubble

Youth unemployment for 16-24 year olds is around one million with one in four out of work for a year or more and one in three 16 year-old school leavers unemployed. Total unemployment is however only just over two and a half million, even as measured by the Labour Force Survey that gives a higher figure than the Claimant Count which government usually quotes. Although at 8%, this is the highest since 1994, it is moderated by the numbers of people who are working part-time as well as by the increasing numbers becoming students. The Office of National Statistics confirms this: of the 8.1 million it lists as ‘economically inactive’, 2.3 million and rising fit this category.

What seems to happening is that many people – including many students – are working part-time rather than signing on. This includes those volunteering and on unpaid internships and placements. Students who have worked their way through sixth-form, college and university continue in this part-time pattern while racking up increasing debt for further training and other courses, including the large numbers who now go on to postgraduate level.

This is consolidating a new pattern in employment with five types of ‘graduate jobs’ described by Elias and Purcell in 2004, starting with ‘traditional graduate jobs’ that include medicine, higher education and science (12%), alongside ‘modern graduate jobs’, eg. in management and IT (13%), plus ‘new graduate jobs’, eg. marketing and sales (16%). What Elias and Purcell call ‘niche graduate jobs’, eg. in leisure and nursing, are also holding up at 21% of graduate destinations. However, it is ‘non-graduate jobs’ that are the largest occupation for 38%, even three years after graduation. With so many in this last category, a further tranche of jobs – in parts of retailing for instance – may become open only to degree holders.

This has a domino effect on those who would previously have taken these jobs. As graduates take A-level jobs, those with A-levels take GCSE-level jobs and the unqualified have nowhere to go. Yet, while the relative advantages of being a graduate might hold up in a ‘labour queue’ for employment, the ratio between graduate earnings and graduate costs will fall as the balance between well-paid permanent employment and casualised ‘Mcjobs’ continues to tilt, making the undergraduate cake no longer worth cost of the fee candle.

Overschooled but undereducated to be overqualified and underemployed

No one would seriously claim that the rush of applicants for UK university and college places represents a new found enthusiasm amongst the nation’s youth for higher learning. Nor that the record levels of qualification of the applicants represents a new accumulation of knowledge or wisdom. Indeed, grade inflation – as indicated by the ‘labour queue’ described above – is recognised by all but government, university Vice Chancellors and the heads of exam boards. A generation of students and teachers at school, college and university are certainly studying harder, but not necessarily learning more.

For many students and their teachers, education is an alienating and instrumental affair. Students learn what they have to, when they have to and in many cases by whatever means they have to. The perception of this situation is not lost upon them, as a final year Education Studies student at the University of Greenwich summarised in 2004:

‘Students learn to connect their self esteem and what they may achieve in later life to their exam results… Over-assessment has made subject knowledge and understanding a thing of the past as students are put through a routine year after year, practising what exactly to write and where in preparation for exams.’

This cramming is endemic: the traditionally English system of selectivity in education now goes on much longer, lasting from primary to postgraduate school, with students in ‘elite’ universities churning out essays just to keep ahead of the competition.

New Labour’s widening participation policy with its target of 50% of 18-30 year olds in some sort of HE was nearly met for women at least. It proved popular with parents who saw their children being given ‘chances’ they did not have. Yet, as an authoritative summary of the results of this initiative declares, ‘These policies have not led to fair or equal access to equal types of higher education or outcomes in the labour market’ (David 2009, 4–5 with original emphasis). Instead, as repeated in conclusion with the same emphasis, ‘systemic and systematic forms of inequality for individuals and institutions across subjects and levels of education have increased since 2000’ (150). Indeed, the entrenched tertiary tripartism between Russell, Campus and New universities reflects exactly the polarising divisions in society, so that the phase of widening participation now drawing to a close may only have served to soften up the system for a free-market in fees differentiated by subject and institution.

What is really going on

Our book, Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education, reviews the relationship between young people, the education system and the occupational structure. We argue that the post-war class pyramid has been recast in the context of persistent unemployment. The new technology and the growth of services has enabled automation and outsourcing while concomitantly, new management techniques have reduced many of the established ‘professions’ – like teaching – towards the condition of waged labour.

Education to all levels has been complicit in both ‘upgrading’ occupations in expanded services, sales, middle-management and administration and ‘degrading’ largely part-time and low-paid jobs at the base of the occupational structure with no or largely worthless vocational qualifications.

Rather than resembling the ‘diamond’ that would result from continued absolute social mobility pulling more into the middle, the class structure has gone pear-shaped. This is reflected in a number of recent statistical studies of the occupational structure which show large numbers of people relying on poor wages for poor work. At the same time extremes of wealth and poverty have polarised.

The result for increasing numbers of young people is like climbing up a down escalator where you have to run faster and faster simply to stand still. This is what fuels the hysteria over educational competition for academic success. In schools, colleges and universities you are expected to work more and more to achieve less and less, so that ‘You have to go to university to get what 30 years ago you didn’t even have to have A-levels for’, as an FE student put it to us. Rather than helping young people to ‘move up’, educational qualifications are now essential to avoid falling to the bottom.

The disappearance of the youth labour market has convinced young people and their parents of the necessity of staying in full-time education for longer. This results in a ‘prolonged’ transition to adulthood – that is if they are able to make a transition at all. In the absence of work, education has not only become the main instrument for social control of youth but is also a new source of division amongst young people. Students are divided from non-students but also amongst each other in a competing hierarchy of FE/ sixth-form and HE institutions. Only those from elite universities are likely to be guaranteed the ‘graduate jobs’ above. Up to one in three are likely to be ‘underemployed,’ having to enter occupations previously performed by non-graduates – assuming they find a job at all. With up to one third of men and one fifth of women between 20 and 34 still living with their parents, dependency continues for much longer as student debt accumulates and the housing market remains difficult/ impossible to enter.

Overcoming individualised perceptions

The competitive ‘standards agenda’ in schools and the ‘widening participation’ programme in F&HE have individualised perceptions. Thus, it is not surprising that surveys and interviews show students, even though they are aware that different types of courses attract people with different social characteristics, consider class differences as unimportant in the determination of their destinies and see their college or university as ‘treating everybody the same’. One implication of being asked to take responsibility for their own learning is that students regard their own failure as the consequence of individual inadequacies so that ‘You only have yourself to blame’.

While recognising the role of business and mass media in the promotion of a new identity culture, we dispute post-modern claims that the disappearance of the ‘old certainties’ of class from the consciousness of young people will result in their ‘forcible emancipation’. Neither is it the case that inter-generational inequalities are now the main dividing line within society as Willets alleges (2009).

Instead, we argue that even though young people may not be ‘class conscious’ in the traditional sense, class differences in economic wealth continue to determine access to the ‘good schools’ that ensure class advantages are maintained. For example, the 7% of the population (12% in London) still able to afford private education can rest assured that not only are 50% of ‘A’ grades at A-level achieved by this sector, but that one in three of those being privately education will gain three grade ‘As’ so that a place at a Russell university, while not guaranteed, is much more likely.

Even if average student debt continues to rise along with fees, up to100,000 students are predicted to be living in ‘hand out homes’ bought by their parents, while those from routine/manual backgrounds receive less than half the amount from their parents compared with those from professional/managerial backgrounds. They are also more likely to be living at home and attending local universities to save money, so that many of these ‘new students’ to whom participation has been widened have more in common with ‘non-students’ than with their campus-based counterparts.

As high rates of youth un-/underemployment persist, we conclude state intervention is urgently required in the youth labour market. We also argue that, despite the divisions between them, young people have the potential to take collective action in new alliances between teachers and taught to change the way that education is organised.


Ainley, P. and Allen, M. (2010) Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education. London: Continuum.

David, M. ed. (2009) Improving learning by widening participation in higher education, London: Routledge.

Elias, P. and Purcell, K. (2004), Seven Years On; Graduate Careers in a Changing Labour Market. London: The Higher Education Careers Services Unit.

Finn, D. (1987) Training Without Jobs, New Deals and Broken Promises, London: Macmillan.

Willets, D. (2009) The Pinch. How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back. London: Atlantic Books.

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2 replies »

  1. Agree with most but not all of this. The problems are the widening of inequalities of opportunity between those who do and do not ‘benefir from’ HE, the escalatng costs and implications discussed above, and the huge disparities within HE in the benefits they are able to access if they do go. However, most DO perceive ,by default, that they gain a fair bit (our surveys have indicated so far that they would mostly do exactly the same again, even despite difficulty in obtaining employment, or appropriate employment). Yes, you go into retail and catering management via universities and colleges rather than by getting a job and working your way up, but is that altogether a bad thing if they do get jobs they think appropriate for somenbody with their skills and knowledge (and the majority – though not all – do after c.3years (- not all or most of which is spend trying to ‘develop careers’? Interesting – and this one will run and run. See Futuretrack http://go.warwick.ac.uk/futuretrack (I think) where we are tracking 2005-6 UCAS applicants through HE from application to two years after completion of undergraduate courses. If you know any 4th year undegrads approaching graduation who are not particiapting in this survey, please tell them to contact me and we’ll send them a link to the Stage 3 survey. This is an independent survey and migh even providebetter evidence than hitherto available about what happens, who gets good and bad jobs, how and why – viz. qualifications, attributes and socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, kind of school they went to, region they live in etc…

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