James Mayes

Educating for failure?

In Personal Development, Recruitment on October 12, 2010 at 8:49 am

Reading Wendy Jacob’s great blog recently on managing candidate expectations – particularly those of students.  She came to the (in my opinion) very rational conclusion that no-one really manages student expectations effectively.  Read the full post here – I went to comment on this, but felt I had somewhat more to say.  I don’t want to go being controversial on someone else’s blog, so I figured I should come home for this next bit.

Here’s the thing.  I believe (and have for a long time) that the education system is designed to fail.  Not underfunded, or poorly executed.  It doesn’t fail by accident, it fails because it has to.  The UK tries to encourage around 50% of young people to continue in further and higher education and that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se. But there is a more basic societal need.  The need for shelf-stackers. Garbage collectors. Logistics drivers, warehouse workers, postmen and women.  If we as society push young people to continue in education until they are degree-qualified, then surely some will be disappointed as not even the UK’s service-oriented economy can support that volume of graduate job-seeker.

How about the knock-on effect?  Colleges and universities recognise they’ve peaked in terms of traditional graduate output – the market is flooded with candidates.  So new courses emerge.  Why? Because they’re encouraged to educate regardless of subject matter and potential outcome. Who picks up the bill?  The student, the student’s family, the tax payer. All in the oft-forlorn hope that this newly educated graduate will contribute increased economic returns.

I don’t have the answers – but maybe we should start asking more of the right questions. For starters: Do we need 50% of our young people to be saddled with debt, high expectation and a degree of debatable value? Where did this target come from and is it in any way reflective of what employers need?

Please enjoy the comments section. I’ll admit this post is deliberately provocative, because I don’t think this issue receives sufficient debate. We in the recruitment industry see such a wide spread of client needs that we should WANT to influence the discussion.


  1. This has been a big bugbear of mine for ages James. I think we have got it entirely wrong. In the 60s the top 10% of pupils went on to university. A bit too much of a ‘closed shop’ perhaps, but contrast that with today’s figures. Labour wanted it to be 50%, but it was running at around 40 I think, but consider the knock on effect. Thousand upon thousand of people coming out of university with the exact same devalued degree and not nearly enough relevant jobs to walk into.Thrown in thousands of pounds worth of debt and what have you got…a totally dejected and desperate individual who knows that even when they do manage to find a job they are going to be paying back a debt for ages. And you can forget about a property ladder!

    I don’t know what the answer is. The government make noises about 300,000 apprenticeships, but where are they creating these and how? It was grim enough when I left school in the late seventies trying to find a job, but at least I didn’t have a millstone of debt round my neck before i even started.

    Some professions demand a university education, others I honestly question whether these days kids would be better off taking their chances at 16 or 18 and progressing via on the job experience rather than living in hope of a pot of gold at the end of the university rainbow.

  2. Good post James – I think there are some (relatively small) things that can be done to improve the prospects but I also think that the issue of technical apprenticeships must be addressed. There are fundamental technical (from science to engineering) skill shortages in the UK that we end up filling via immigration (now capped so investment under pressure) and losing a competitive advantage. Make the technical courses less debt laden, proactively push people towards these type of courses. Use flexible employment solutions to gain experience.

    • Bang on. There’s people from my uni days I’m still in touch with that would have been far better served by an alternative path, even then. I’m sure the situation is much worse now. My other major complaint is the variety between degrees. You have have two graduates with 2.1 Honours degrees – both look from the surface to be similar, then you discover one has had 3 hours lecture time a week and a nice comfortable 3 years and the other 45 hours a week contact time, plus outside study and a 4 year course. They just aren’t comparable – and I know people in both camps, so this isn’t hearsay!

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  4. I can see why you had to write a blog in response! As recent graduate myself, I do unfortunately agree that too many people are now getting degrees for the wrong reasons. I wonder whether some school careers advisors seek to improve the students’ career prospects or the school’s reputation through sending as many candidates to university as possible. Degrees now seem to be sold as an essential requirement in gaining a job, which as we know is not true.

    But at the same time what’s wrong with gaining an education for the sake of education? Ok it’s expensive – I and many of my friends are resigned to the fact that we will spend far longer than the next decade paying off 3-4 years of our youth yet few of us would trade the experiences we had. Too often the commercial values of life decisions are taken in higher regard than the simple fact of improving oneself for your own satisfaction.

    However, I do agree that there seem to be now too many students finishing their degrees, finding themselves without one of the limited places on a golden grad scheme and feeling cheated for their efforts. Perhaps better education at a school level of the realities of finding employment and the better matching of students to careers that they would excel at would result in better informed decisions being made instead of a ‘one size fits all’ policy?

    • I too took years to pay the debts off – and like you, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. However, with something like this, the commercial values must come into play. Consider the taxpayer spend on the education sector – could we cut the spurious courses and save more NHS lives instead? Consider the number of people changing their entire life-plan around the fact that they’ll start adult life in debt and won’t be free of it for a decade. Debt culture is (at least in part) responsible for the current recession. Should we encourage tomorrow’s leaders to accept debt culture as a fact of life? I agree with many of your points, but the commercial impacts cannot be ignored here.

  5. I don’t believe you are still ranting on this subject its been 16 years since we first had this discussion.

    I am not (and have never) said that we have got it right in this country and there are many things we could do better, especially managing expectations and making far better use of apprenticeships across all professions not just technical or practical ones (Rob I completely agree with you). However in all the years you have moaned about this you have never come up with an alternative.

    I do not feel its right to deny people with aspirations to learn the right to achieve their potential. And before you say it, it is obviously a different matter if capability is in question.

    Would you have denied me or you our degree’s? We could both have ended up in our chosen professions without them by using appropriate apprenticeships but we both learnt far more by being at University.

    Just a thought…

    • I’ll admit I don’t have the answers – I’m a recruiter, not an educationalist. I can see the disconnect though, and I’ll rant about it as long as it remains. I guess I’ve not ranted loudly enough (or you’ve known me too long…). I wouldn’t deny anyone an education, or particularly the right to achieve their potential – but I will question the way in which it’s done when it delivers into adulthood disillusioned masses, saddled with debt and of no use to the employment market they find! University is certainly about life experience as much as academic achievement – but again, there are multiple ways to achieve that experience. Maybe there’s a greater part to play here for volunteering organisations – getting the time and energy of these young graduates, in return for giving them the skills and experience they really need – in this country, and overseas. And yes, I’m playing to your professional interests. It’s more fun that way 😉

  6. James, interesting points and something that I mused on myself a little while ago. Whilst I don’t disagree with you, I have a slightly different take. The amount of information that we know, the amount that there is to know has increased exponentially over the past decade and is increasing year on year. Our education system, however, has changed little in decades.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that we should go back in time where education was a thing for the privileged and an entrance to the professions (although the current proposals on University funding are sadly a step back in that direction). Universal access to education is important, it is the basis on which we provide people with the ability to be socially mobile…although admittedly, this cannot apply to everyone.

    But combine your concerns with the fact that employers repeatedly question the value of a University degree and we have a problem. What is the solution? I personally believe we need to reframe the way in which we think about the education system. The education system can only be the foundations for lifelong learning, whether that be vocational or academic. We can’t expect the education system to teach us all the “stuff” that we are going to need for work, but we can expect it to make us capable of learning.

    Does this mean that we need to scrap the University system? No, it means the entire education system needs radically rethinking. We need to stop viewing each educational sector as being subject based “higher” learning and focus on breadth. Then as businesses we need to accept that we will have to educate people on the “how” when it comes to work.

    • Theo, I believe you’re spot on with a radical rethink. Rather than a degree over a specific time period, why not an extended (but lower intensity) course, coupled with professional experience. Discover what work really is, before spending 3-5 years and 20 grand committing your future to that sector. Add flexibility to allow movement between career types or industry sectors. The world of work is more project-based than ever more (as the inexorable rise of the interim shows) so surely it’s now possible to intersperse a life-time degree with work. The only part of the system I view as essential (as you rightly identify) – is to make us capable of learning. And if schools/colleges further down the chain were more effective, even that would have less of a demand. But I grow close to my second educational soap-box here – why is there such a substantial disconnect between the learning capability required at GCSE level as opposed to A-Level. Another blog, another time!

  7. Some great debate here. I went straight into work and supplemented my career with additional academic and practical learning. It was bloody hard work at times though, competing with “degrees” on paper and the kudos that used to supply. I also think that the “degree” has been devalued somewhat and with my 19 year old son starting a degree this year, I am appalled (and so is he) by the lack of effort needed at times. Not a great use of time is it!

    • I’m with your son on that one. I did a broad-based 3 year course covering IT, UK Economics and Geography (Honours classification). If I’d been pushed hard, I’m pretty sure it could have been done in a year, maybe less. I’d have had the degree, had the initial life experience and left Uni with (I’d guess) 5k debt instead of nearer 20k. I’m not bitter, I loved every minute – but I do think the systems’s been broken for some time now.

  8. I never understood the ‘life experience’ argument rolled out by uni goers. I mean, whilst many of my friends were getting themselves into debt and attending the occasionaly lecture at uni, but admittedly enjoying subsidised lager and the odd game of pool, I was earning, out in the big wide world, flush enough to have life experiences every day of the week and able to get on the property ladder before most of them had even finished their ‘meeeja’ studies degree. Most importantly, I was learning those very important ‘soft’ skills in the workplace, some of which cannot be taught at university.

    Would I change things if I had my time again? Er, no. I am all for making the most of learning opportunities, but you have to ask very seriously today, at what price? I cannot see how it is fair to encourage the masses to go to university when you can only promise a percentage a job at the end of it all. Thus, if my boys should ask me for advice I shall tell them if they want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a rocket scientist, go to uni, but if they are going to drift into recruitment or media sales for instance, I’d say get into it as soon as you can and save yourself a fortune, both in money and emotional turmoil. You’ll give yourself a 3 or 4 year head start on your peers.

  9. It was never perfect, but in the 90’s there was a perfectly serviceable range of escalating qualifications that school-leavers could progress to, and that employers could understand and relate to.

    Apprenticeships in vocational fields from engineering to hairdressing, that were accompanied by college work.

    ONC, OND, HNC, HND, Degree, etc etc

    If you didn’t get the right High school results, there was always a further education route that you could pursue. Now, nomatter your results, there will always be a degree course you can get into.

    The result is that candidates without a degree of some kind are becoming scarce, and therefore viewed unfairly as educational rejects. Equally, it’s more difficult for employers to differentiate between candidates who apparently have the same level of qualification, but are actually light years apart.

    My second son is trying to gain entry to study Medicine at Glasgow University. Whatever course he does study, his 4 or 5 year honours degree will stand alongside a 3 year degree from a former polytechnic. How can this possibly be called progress?

  10. PS. There must be something in the air, if you, Wendy and I have written on education this week.


  11. Great article James, and some great comments too.

    I’m one of the weird ones who decided that work seemed more interesting than uni, and I have NEVER regretted the decision. Nearly all of my friends went to uni, and it’s depressing to see how many have never used their qualifications. Even worse is seeing the lack of direction they have as they work out what they actually want as a career. Seems that all the “life experience” they were promised at uni doesn’t work so well at helping them with REAL life :-/

    Unsurprisingly, the educators argue that “we’re in a knowledge economy” and “these graduates are desperately needed”, but when I hear that Waitrose struggled to fill 20 vacancies from 2,500 applicants* you’ve got to start wondering what’s gone wrong…

    * Figures quoted from this eye-opening Radio 4 series that started last night… http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00t3vl4/The_Graduate_Episode_1

    • Thanks for getting involved Josh, and contributing the iplayer link. I’d agree with the view that very few seem to actually use their degree commercially. Employers I’e spoken to about this in the past say they want grads because they’ve shown they can learn and shown they can be independent – they’re less concerned with the actual subject matter. Personally, I think both of those two points are debatable anyway…

      • Sadly, I think you’re right. The fact is that the ability to learn efficiently and think/work independently can be as easily gained on-the-job as in a lecture hall.

        Unfortunately the last government’s quotas fetish resulted in a completely skewed situation, which we’re now reaping the rewards of.

  12. This massive and rapid expansion of higher education, from about 10% of the population to about 50% in a couple of generations, would make sense if it had come about because over this period schools began producing five times as many undergraduate-calibre students. Since they’re not, the net result is a proliferation of alleged degrees designed for people whose real educational needs are to be sent back until they can at least read, write and count properly.

    If you intepret higher education primarily as signalling behaviour (as many economists do) then that signal is so devalued that if I get a pile of graduate CVs I know before I start reading that half of them will be underqualified for a minimum wage internship. If I was in a conspiracy theory mood I’d be tempted to conclude that some fairly crude social engineering has gone on here, deliberately devaluing a signal that used to mark out an intellectual elite so as to deprive them of it. Probably in reality it’s just an incompetent failure to differentiate causation and correlation on the part of policy-makers – realising that university graduates were richer and more productive than non-graduates they decided they could make everyone richer by handing out degrees for the asking, and then couldn’t understand why this didn’t produce millions of valuable knowledge workers.

    • Very eloquently put. And spot on too. We have indeed devalued the worth of a degree and I am not sure there is any turning back to remedy the mess. I feel so sorry for the thousands who have been told to go down the university path only to come to the end of that path in debt, competing with vast swathes of like minded people and without the guarantee of a job.

  13. I don’t have a proper qualification to my name.

    I’d love a degree, but I certainly wouldn’t pay for one.

    • Key point right there Stephen – you’re an experienced, commercially successful man. Why would you love a degree?

      • When all my friends were at university an art school, I was working, selling advertising, fax machines and cable TV. Without that grounding, I’d never have joined HMS Recruitment at 21. The intensive sales training I received stands me in good stead even today.
        Having said that, I was still jealous. I’d have loved the luxury of being educated to a higher level in a focused subject. At the time, to reassure myself, I took and passed the exam to join MENSA. I didn’t actually join, as I couldn’t afford the fees. I just wanted the validation that I was as smart as I thought I was.

        For many kids, who are academically talented, qualifications bestow that same validation, and give a sense of achievement that underpins their ambitions.

        Very soon employers will be saying to candidates “You mean you don’t even have a degree? Surely everyone has a degree?”

  14. OK, a total lay-person’s opinion here, but I agree with you James. I’ve always felt that the pressure on kids to get a degree is misplaced. A university degree has always been an academic qualification, not vocational. Most people are not academic, and to elevate academic qualifications sends out a strong message that any other kind of training – vocational, manual, apprenticeships etc – is of lesser value, so no-one wants to do them.

    Meanwhile, the establishment’s attitude seems to be “the only training of any value is academic and/or ratified by a university, therefore we must make it possible for everyone to achieve a degree even if that means offering easier/less academic courses.” I can’t see how that helps anyone, so I can only imagine it’s in part down to the government wanting to keep people in education and off the unemployment register.

    As for the idea that overhauling the university system is the way to get more state school-educated/working class or whatever you want to call those who are not classed as ‘privileged’ into positions of authority, professions etc, that doesn’t appear to be happening yet. Just look at the educational background of the current Cabinet.

    I’ve heard that Holland has a fantastic and well-funded network of vocational colleges offering practical (and demanding) apprenticeship-type training leading to professionally recognised qualifications (as opposed to dumbed-down versions of academic qualifications). Why don’t we have that here?

    • The problems to be found with the current cabinet go far beyond educational background, but that’s a whole other post. Probably a less interesting one! As for the Dutch system, that certainly sounds at first glance as though it’s the kind of thing we should look at in more detail. I have a number of close friends in professional trades who have nothing good to say about the vocational qualification system we currently have.

  15. Great post and enjoying comments. Just to chip in a contrary view
    – University is not just about earning power – its about the positive impact of learning/power of education and benefits to society of a well educated society.
    – the problem with many of the “university of life” posters above is that predominantly they are saying that a degree is not worth the debt you are lumbered with – which is fair enough
    – however the natural corollary of this – is higher education once again becomes the preserve of the upper middle classes as their parents either fund or part fund their courses. Lower income families cant afford it.
    – it is still going to be massively state funded with latest proposals so you get the lovely situation of lower middle/working class(not great terms but you understand what i mean) taxes funding middle upper class people to go to university.
    – basically a return to the 60s
    Its not perfect and should be more vocational of course but i would rather err on the side of having a fantastically educated young society so that we can compete internationally. rather than lower income people doing apprenticeships/working from 16 while higher income people drink cocktails on their punts.


  16. […] Educating for failure? October 2010 26 comments […]

  17. […] By the way – if you enjoyed this one, I wrote a post a while back on the subject of Educating for Failure – you might appreciate that […]

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