Gordon Brown is doing his bit for the long term unemployed by creating jobs for redundant cabinet ministers and their aides. Recycling Peter Mandelson as Business Secretary has been such a success that the PM is returning another Blairite job seeker, Alan Milburn, to the fold. And reportedly trying to persuade Alistair Campbell to become a Lord – though I’m not sure if becoming Baron Campbell of B*llocks counts as a proper job.
Alan Milburn’s new task, announced as part of the Prime Minister’s jobs summit, will be to help more working class students get into professional jobs. The former Health Secretary is to conduct a review of the obstacles faced by children from poorer families seeking careers in law, medicine and the media. Well, I think I can help him out here. There is one very obvious reason why so many medical students and lawyers come from well-off families: they can afford to take on the £20,000 debts that many have to shoulder to become qualified. Working class school leavers are twice as likely to be discouraged from going to University because of debt than middle class students.
Gordon has shown a nice sense of irony in handing this task to one of the most market-oriented politicians around. Alan Milburn was an advocate of university top up fees, which made success at university even more dependent on family background and wealth. But at least Brown can’t be accused of promoting class war. Milburn and the Labour minister, Liam Byrne, apparently believe that the preponderance of privately-educated graduates in law is not about money but something to do with “character”, acquired at private schools. Character education is the new buzz phrase in New Labour circles. Comprehensive head teachers better start clearing their staff rooms now to make way for the legion of ‘character workers’ sent in to sort out slummy kids.
This is patronising nonsense. State-educated students don’t lack character, they lack opportunity. Working class graduates get discouraged when they find that their expensive degrees still don’t get them into professional jobs because they didn’t go to the right schools. Private education isn’t better than the state, it just gives you better contacts – a calling card for a world of connections and privileges. In many well-heeled Edinburgh dinner parties the first subject of conversation remains: ‘and where did you go’.Which may be one reason why the law in this country is so antiquated.
Forget class, a little meritocracy would work wonders. Take the media, of which I have some experience. Especially in London, where the jobs are, areas like broadcasting are increasingly staffed by people who can afford to work for nothing for the years it takes until producers can remember their names – which tend something like Tamsin or Phoebe. Class envy? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t envy trustafarians who can subsidise themselves, not just through four years of college, but another four years of internships until they get a proper contract. There are people in their thirties in the media who have worked all their adult lives and never had a job.
This situation is only going to get worse as graduate employment evaporates and competition increases. This is a very post-modern economic recession in which students are increasingly find themselves in the front line. Youth unemployment is growing faster than among any other age group and of the 3 million likely to be unemployed by the end of the year, 1,25 million will be under 25 and many will be holding degrees. They are being called “Generation Crunch”. Even many middle class students are questioning the value of higher education when they slog away for four years, taking on massive debt, only to find themselves in a temporary job in M&S.
I have to declare an interest here since I have been asked to stand for Rector of Edinburgh University and have been speaking to a lot of students recently some of whom are working 22 hours a week in a bar to help pay for their education. Student accommodation costs up to £750 a month in Edinburgh. The popular image of student life – forged I admit by my own dissolute generation – is one of privileged and pretentious layabouts whose radicalism is hampered by an inability to get up in the morning. But the Young Ones are long gone, along with the Dave Sparts. Students still tend to dress as if they’ve been sleeping in their clothes for week, but they are a lot more mature and hard working than I ever was. Universities have become white collar factories turning out legions of managers and financial controllers for the banks and corporations. And not without financial reward: graduates who actually got a proper job in 2008 could expect around £24,000 a year according to the university careers service, Prospect. But the good times are over, and the annual milk round has turned sour as the big firms cut back. .
Or rather become more exclusive, I would urge Mr Milburn to examine reports that the firms who are still hiring are concentrating on five elite Universities; Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and the London School of Economics. You may notice that these are not in Scotland. Yes, Edinburgh is regarded as one of the elite universities, and used to have one of the highest rates of graduate employment thanks to the towering presence of Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. Unfortunately, those institutions have other things on their minds right now, as does the rest of Edinburgh’s financial services sector.
There are 60,000 students in Edinburgh’s various universities and colleges, wondering where on earth they go from here. Something needs to be done as a matter of urgency about graduate debt. Indebted students are discovering that that their bank managers are rapidly turning nasty over credit cards and overdrafts. A minimum income guarantee for students of £7,000 to bring them up to the official poverty line would be a good start. Whether on grants or loans, students can’t possibly survive on £4,500. The government is talking about funding three month internships, which is a reasonable idea, so long as graduates aren’t exploited. Funding voluntary work might be better. The Scottish Government could help by reversing its decision to cut funding to the Projectscotland volunteer programme.
Above all, the universities need to improve their teaching, so that students are properly equipped for the jobs market. No, university isn’t all about getting the right job, at the right salary. It is about producing well-rounded individuals, creating an educated society, promoting research and extending the bounds of human knowledge. It is an investment in social capital. But in the age of mass higher education, when 50% of school leavers are studying, it is also about making a living. People of my generation, need to realise that graduates are no longer privileged members of an educated elite, but ordinary workers. If they don’t get work, we may find that students rediscover their radicalism faster than anyone imagined possible.