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In the search for jobs, should disadvantaged students behave more like middle-class students … or should the labour market change?

  • 21 December 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

This short and timely book is aimed at ‘anybody seeking to understand how to get ahead’, which is presumably most people – although, in reality, I suspect it is more likely to be read by careers advisers, human resources staff and policy wonks (like me) than it is to be pored over by students or aspiring students.

Much of the evidence brought skilfully together by the author Ben Wildavsky promotes familiar lessons – for example, that so-called soft skills can be just as important as job-specific ones. But as the sources are generally from the US, the book provides a reminder that these lessons are not limited to the UK or to our own labour market and productivity challenges.

Plato around a seminar table this ain’t

Wildavsky usefully nails the idea that higher education is contrary to skills-based learning, noting that even the ‘land-grant institutions’ founded in the US over a century ago provide practical experience. He notes courses like Forensics, Accounting and Hotel Management are available in many such universities: ‘Plato around a seminar table this ain’t.’

I feel confused when UK policy makers complain about there being too many students while simultaneously wanting more people to do ‘vocational education’

For the same reason, I feel confused when UK policy makers complain about there being too many students while simultaneously wanting more people to do ‘vocational education’. Where do they think some of the best vocational education occurs if not on degree programmes in higher education institutions – whether that is a university, FE college or independent provider?

The book also usefully reminds us that commitments by employers to end graduate-only recruitment are often not meaningful. They may win headlines but, whatever the job adverts might say, hirers are still impressed by degrees when it comes to actual appointments: ‘candidates with degrees are likely to hold a significant edge when the time comes to make a hire.’

Indeed, Wildavsky makes it abundantly clear that those headlines claiming degrees are no longer as helpful as they once were are often flat out wrong: ‘Contrary to the popular disruption story, companies like Google have not abandoned traditional credentials.’ Indeed, we are told Grow with Google online certificates ‘aren’t intended to prepare people to work at Google itself.’

Short courses (and the LLE)

If I were a Government Minister at Westminster searching for evidence to back the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, I would find a lot of indirect support in this book. The benefits of carefully chosen short courses are celebrated – whether for those without previous higher level qualifications or for those who could benefit from some topping up or who want to change direction. Upskilling and reskilling.

Nonetheless, whether the LLE is the best option for those who might benefit the most from short courses remains in doubt. Jonathan Michie OBE, who was Joint Secretary of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, has called instead for ‘a genuine entitlement quite separate from the funding for the three-year degree. The fact it is meshed together has just made it confusing, messy and unhelpful.’

We are also reminded by Wildavsky that short courses are often of most interest to those who already hold credentials: ‘the majority of people seeking to build specific skills through tailored education programs actually have degrees already.’ Learning begets learning. Yet Robert Halfon recently confirmed those returning to higher education and accessing the LLE will only ‘be able to access their residual tuition loan entitlement.’ Many (most?) readers of this blog will be excluded altogether.

Turn on, tune in, drop out

It is not only Ministers who should fillet this book. If I were James Wharton or Susan Lapworth (Chair and CEO of the Office for Students respectively), I would find support here for the B3 subject-level metrics on continuation, completion and progression. 

As Wildavsky reminds us, eight-in-10 if the 1.7 million people who start at a US community college each year hope to obtain a Bachelor’s degree … but only 14 per cent do so within six years. Moreover, 39 million Americans say they have ‘some college, no degree’.

I cannot help wondering – a little mischievously perhaps – whether the US needs B3 more than we do

These people have generally seen a poor return on their initial investment. Given the relatively low drop-out rate on this side of the Atlantic, I cannot help wondering – a little mischievously perhaps – whether the US needs B3 more than we do.

The strength of weak ties

The book has a lot of detail about ‘the strength of weak ties’ (named after one of the most cited social science papers ever). In this case, the focus is on how large networks can help graduates achieve rewarding first jobs, which often then set them up for successful career trajectories.

There are more poor students than there used to be and they have to take on routine jobs just to pay the bills while other students can take on glamorous internships and placements. Moreover, the pandemic increased isolation and worsened mental health. So the challenge of helping those with great talents but few connections clearly remains as important as ever.

Many organisations work hard to tackle the reality that disadvantaged students tend to have less meaningful networks – in the past, HEPI has worked with some of them (such as JobTeaser, Gradcore and Handshake). The goal of such organisations is to broaden the applicability of the old saying, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ Wildavsky puts it like this: 

it’s encouraging that, for low income students seeking to build career success with modest inherited networks, education and skills are increasingly recognised to be necessary but not sufficient. Social capital shouldn’t have to play second fiddle any longer.

It would be churlish not to welcome this, though I worry about basing initiatives on that other old motto ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. We could be missing something important when we act as if the best way for disadvantaged students to succeed is for them to copy their advantaged peers. Wildavsky hints at this problem himself in a couple of pages at the very end of his short book; he instructs students to ‘Prepare for the world as it is, not as you wish it were’.

That makes a lot of sense but, as we look to a new year and think about resolutions for the future, it seems regrettable that we have not done more to organise the graduate jobs market in such a way that opportunities are more equal from the off. Should we collectively aim to put much less of the responsibility for broadening access to the best paid professions on the shoulders of disadvantaged students themselves?

It is surely not fair to expect those struggling to make the jump from education to the labour market to act in the same way as if they had been born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

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