Critical reading and writing
When planning a career how important is getting a degree? Discuss
The importance placed upon getting a degree for career aspirants draws mixed opinion from the academic community, the professional sector and post-graduate employees who are at the terminal point in the process. The “incentives to complete further degrees are often motivated by the desire to distinguish one’s skill level from the norm…(with) employability a common catalyst for further education.” [Brooks and Everett 2009:343]. However, there exists a cautious ambivalence now about the direct benefits of attaining a degree, especially when over 40% of UK students now study for one.
Such ambivalence today leaves students immersed in their undergraduate programs wondering if there may be some causal link, or indirect influence, between tertiary level academic qualifications, and securing employment where career building in particular is in mind. Alternatively, people planning a career may have more modest expectations about degree completion guaranteeing a desired career pathway; this was particularly true in the past, though, when fewer people had degrees so they were, in effect, worth more (whatever the grade) and were also more likely to boost career prospects. Inclusion and accessibility of degrees has, in effect, devalued them, it could be argued. In spite of increased tentativeness that further education will ensure career pursuit, education remains the most significant factor in planning a degree for most people. Yet other significant factors such as cultural capital, work experience and related extra-curricular activities are as significant in the labour market. The market values employability and distinctiveness or ‘edge’ which can come in various guises are discussed within this essay.
In the past two decades there has been a sea-change in higher education [Brooks and Everett 2009:333]. From one perspective, as the labour market has become increasingly competitive in Western nations, individuals have felt compelled to continue formal education for longer, in order to attain academic qualifications which match or exceed the majority of peer graduates. This process during this last generation has affected a normalisation of higher education, which means the majority of career seekers rather than the minority choose to proceed to at least undergraduate level. The professional class has expanded and the trades have remained static. As Brooks and Everett [2009:336] state, “undergraduate degrees are felt to be the basic minimum.” Many students now need a Master’s degree to ‘stand out from the crowd’, especially with so many international graduates coming into the UK from all over the world.
Moreover, the ‘massification’ of Higher Education in the UK has heightened expectations that tertiary graduates will be embraced by the labour market at a level commensurate with their knowledge base [Brooks and Everett 2009:334]. In other words, as it has become more commonplace for school leavers to complete undergraduate degrees, there has arisen a widespread expectation that when students invest additional years of non-compulsory study, the labour market will reward them for this time investment with a skills level appropriate job. This expectation is intensified in many people who not only invest their time in full time study, but also forego income earning opportunities and fund their non-compulsory education (with a student loan perhaps), in a bid to access a more lucrative or more satisfying employment sector. The sobering reality is there has been “no major shift in the distribution of graduates in the British labour market, while graduate density appears to have driven down wages” [Brooks and Everett 2009:334]. Indeed, some employers responded to the oversupply of graduates by increasing minimum qualifications needed for entry level positions, with no adjustment in job skills or wages. [Brooks and Everett 2009:337] Many employers set their own tests too, as there is a widespread perception that there has been massive dumbing down at universities, so many graduates – and even postgraduates – do not even really know the basics of their subjects, and have woeful levels of literacy and numeracy, plus an unpleasant and ego-centric attitude.
In Australia, higher education has become normalised for post-compulsory secondary education graduates [Brooks and Everett 2009:333]. The concept of lifelong education is becoming normative for societies throughout the Western world, perhaps in response to an aging population and a flexible employment market. In the case of Australia, the paradigm is promoted as a means of achieving a globally competitive nation. [Dolby et al 2004:101]
There is evidence that securing a degree is not a guarantee of employment, nor an assured path to securing a career, these days. There is also evidence that people who pursue a professional life concede the limitations of a good undergraduate degree. Brooks and Everett [2009:334-5] observe that “perceptions of the value of higher education among graduates is mixed, with some not securing employment related to their field of study.” (However, this is a rather functional view of education which sees it as merely training for the workplace rather than an improving and humanistic force.) Instead, these writers suggest that “cultural capital may be a more telling factor in determining a Labour market entry success, than Higher Education” [Brooks and Everett 2009:335]. Such hesitations are also expressed by graduates, typified by “you know, you might be smart in university but it doesn’t mean you’re smart in life and, at that stage, I think I was smarter in university than in life”[ Brooks and Everett 2009:337]. This, however, is again seeing education as nothing more than training for the world of work and is the view, it seems, of US-style corporate big business. Surely, ‘education’ is more than just training for being a ‘wage slave’? Perhaps not, in the eyes of some.
Of course, this kind of realistic assessment by students enables them to evaluate the relative merits of a degree (according to work relevance and not education as defined as learning to think). Indeed, according to Brooks and Everett [2009:338], “graduates reflect that work experience while in an undergraduate programme combined with related extra-curricular activities is needed to make future graduates more palatable to the labour market.”
There are a range of disparate and conflicting attitudes towards the status and direction of post-secondary education, causing its value to be more closely scrutinised. Observers such as Dolby et al [2004:2] are concerned that education as a public good is under threat globally, as corporate practices and privatisation become normative. The dominant view of education through recent decades has been that it replicates social class, meaning working class kids get working class jobs etc [Dolby et al 2004:4]. In this sense, social privilege still pulls some rank, in terms of determining which academic institutions school leavers can access, based upon family status or capacity to pay – or A level grades. With education being an essential fulcrum to achieve labour market success, there are ethical questions concerning limits of access for children of working class families [Dolby et al 2004:17].
The matter of access is reputedly addressed differently in The Netherlands, where higher education is available and normative at any stage of a career pathway, and not restricted to post-secondary, pre-labour market entry. People of all ages undertake it to strengthen career prospects, according to Allen et al [2007:231]. Blosfeld et al [2008:80] explain that in The Netherlands there are many educational tracks in secondary education with a developed level of vertical and horizontal stratification, meaning vocational education can be career specific. Also, they have a selective school system, not a comprehensive one, so vocational schools can serve less academic youngsters at an early secondary school age.
There is a degree of realism following graduation that graduates may accept either temporary employment or even unemployment for a time [Brooks and Everett 2009:340]. Moreover, when graduates secure part time employment after graduation it may be through choice rather than necessity, to enable the maintenance of freedom to combine other valued pursuits such as travel [Brooks and Everett 2009:341]. Writers also document recent research with young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 (Fenton & Dermott, 2006) which provides little evidence of ongoing fractured relationships to the labour market amongst graduates; such transitions were associated primarily with low levels of academic attainment [Brooks and Everett 2009:341]. While the type of degree “tends to affect labour market entry outcomes” [Brooks and Everett 2009:343], most graduates in the study noted by Brooks and Everett [2009:342] were “not perturbed by false expectations of immediate knowledge appropriate employment following graduation, although their capacity to find knowledge compatible employment influenced their ongoing decisions about further education and work.”
In conclusion, it is recommended that individuals wishing to enter certain professions have a degree, and those wishing to follow certain paths should be geared towards them, but for many students, studying a subject that interests them will be the best choice – because that will teach the students how to think and not just how to do and will thus last a lifetime and enrich their lives beyond the everyday world of work.
Allen, J. Inenaga, Y. and Van der Velden R, (2007) Competencies, higher education, and career in Japan and the Netherlands, Dordrecht: Springer
Blossfeld, H. Bukodi, E. and Kurz, K. (2008) Young workers, globalization and the labor market: comparing early working life in eleven countries, Cheltenham, Glos, UK
Brooks, R. and Everett, G. (2009) ‘Post-graduate reflections on the value of a degree’ British Educational Research Journal, 35:3 p.p. 333-349
Dolby, N. and Dimitriadis, G (eds) with Willis, P.(2004) Learning to Labor in New Times, New York: Routledge Falmer
Melamed, T. (2008) Validation of a Stage Model of Career Success, Applied Psychology, 45: 1: 35-65
Ng, R.W.H. and Feldman, D.C. (2008) How broadly does education contribute to job performance? Personnel Psychology 2009, 62, 89–134