Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Educational Nonsense

One of the tactics Labour has adopted during this recession is to throw money, or appear to throw money, at the social groups that might be disadvantaged by it. This might seem well and good, though common sense suggests that this approach doesn't work properly if you have to borrow the money you wish to throw. It's a bit like taking out a second mortgage to pay off the credit cards you maxed out by trying to pay your original mortgage which you couldn't afford in the first place.

Anyway, the latest group to apparently get some help are the middle class professionals who might lose their jobs in the coming months and years. This story was actually the front-page headline on the Telegraph this morning. Essentially, the government is promising some £120 million to universities and colleges to offer bursaries and new courses for these people. They want them to study for higher qualifications like MAs and MBAs based on the logic that: "once the job market improves, it will be beneficial for them to be able to explain a gap in their CV as time out to study for a new qualification."

This might all seem fine, but there are a number of problems and plenty of misconceptions and untruths hidden under the surface. First of all, if and when the recession is over and companies are going to start employing again, these people will still find it harder to get back into work than they might think. The reality is that every company likes to keep costs down. So when presented with someone with a decade of experience and a MBA, and who was made redundant, or with someone who has less experience but the same qualifications and who is a decade younger, they will more than likely go for the younger option. The reason for this is that they can pay them less. I'll give you an example; my father was made redundant from his job a few years ago. He got the job with no formal qualifications, though he had one or two by the time he left. He was replaced by two people, both with BSc degrees, and with salaries two and a half times less than he was earning. I'm not doing the sad violin thing here; he was delighted to be able to retire. But my point is that the one thing that keeps costs down more than anything is being able to hire younger people at the bottom end of the salary scale instead of more experienced individuals, however qualified they might be.

Let us also not forget that this is the government which effectively made it much harder for professionals to change careers. Last year, some £100 million was cut from the budget which funded second degrees. This meant that someone who say, had a BA in English and wanted to study for a BSc in Biology to begin a new career, had to pay the degree costs in their entirety. You might think this is reasonable, but the reality is that this constricts the experience market, keeps people in jobs they don't want, and narrows the skills base of the workforce. At a very hypothetical level, a person with two degrees in two different subjects can do two jobs; a person with two degrees in the same subject - as with this current plan - can still only do one job.

Something else that is worth mentioning is this. If someone becomes unemployed, but takes up education on a full-time basis, that person is no longer classed as unemployed; they become a student. So with unemployment expected to hit 3.5 million over the coming year or so, I'm sure the government would love to siphon as many of those people as possible in to education to make the figures look a bit better.

I mentioned earlier that a person with two degrees in the same subject can only do one job and, while this is clearly an exaggeration, it probably had you wondering why it had to be in the same subject. Can't they do a further qualification in something else? Simply put, the answer is no. In order to do a Masters degree, a person usually has to have a solid foundation in whatever subject it's in; usually in the form of a graduate degree. Back when I did my MA, I had to fight tooth and nail to get the one I wanted, and I had a graduate degree that was in many ways very similar to the MA I intended to study. So a redundant research scientist can't automatically do an MBA anymore than a redundant claims adjuster can do an LLM.

I don't think I am unreasonable making these points. From a certain point of view you can sort of see what the government is trying to do; my issue with it is that it can't work in the way it's being spun, and doesn't reflect the reality of the employment market. And when the government has deliberately taken steps to hamper the chances of professionals looking for new careers, it seems astoundingly wasteful to throw the same amount of money at providing qualifications that are unlikely to help anyone.

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