What role does academia play in difficult economic times? I thought about this a lot yesterday, after the British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith spoke on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning (for a review, see here).
Duncan-Smith was discussing a recent government initiative through which long-term unemployed people of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to take unpaid work experience in large businesses such as supermarkets and retail outlets. He was defending the policy in light of recent complaints, mainly coming from individuals who felt that shelf stacking in retail was entirely unsuitable to their desired career paths. Most prominent of these was a geology graduate, who had successfully filed a law suit against the initiative, arguing that forcing her to work unpaid while threatening to cut her unemployment benefit breached employment law.
Duncan-Smith defended his policy quite well. The most interesting moments for me, were when he said the following:
“I’m sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they’re too good for this kind of stuff.
“Let me remind you that [former Tesco chief executive] Terry Leahy started his life stacking shelves.
“The next time somebody goes in – those smart people who say there’s something wrong with this – they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question, when they can’t find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important – them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?”
These views, and especially the section at the end, raise all kinds of unanswerable questions about the respective values of knowledge, research and work. I’m sure many have opinions on these, and I’d be glad to hear some. However, for me, it boils down to one major issue which I think affect all involved in the University sector: that is, if we want to expand our University programmes and encourage more of our population to get degrees, exactly who will stack the shelves in supermarkets and exactly which kinds of jobs do we need to create for them?
It is not for me to discuss politics and the economy in a history blog. But I think all of us involved in teaching at University level need to seriously think about this. More and more of our young people are going to university, investing more and more money in their degrees, but if the jobs are not there when they come out, should this process continue? This is important for all students. With increasing numbers of us getting PhDs, are there more jobs in universities for them to go into? The recent and excellent piece by Guardian Student columnist, Vicky Blake, suggests maybe not (read here).
Today’s British economy is heavily slanted towards the services: most of my school and university friends are now working in things like insurance, web design, and other numerous roles in offices. We have a society in which you are deemed successful if you go to university, but in which (in my experience of teaching them for four years now) very few first-year undergraduate students really know exactly how they will use their degree afterwards.
Then there is an opposite view: that love for a subject alone is justification enough to take a degree. I firmly believe that if you want to go to university to study and subject simply because you love it, is reason enough to go. I myself did the same thing, and have (hopefully) come out the other side with good long-term career plans, and a job researching and teaching something that I absolutely love. But Duncan-Smiths’ comments raise a very important point, which is that there simply may not yet be enough high-level graduate jobs for everybody. The point he was making is that you have to also be prepared to roll your sleeves up during hard times. I myself know this well, having worked as a student in bars, in various low-level admin jobs, and even in a factory making frozen chicken products! However, I think also that he and his colleagues need to think: what exactly is the right balance between work and education, and can we ever really tell anyone that they’re not allowed to follow the subjects that they love, simply because ‘somebody needs to work in Tesco’? Of course not, but what exactly do we tell our students? Is it: ‘sorry, I’ve lived this dream but you’re not allowed to’?
Comments and questions welcomed!