Adam Formby (University of Leeds) and John Hudson (University of York)
In outlining the Liberal Democrat’s 2015 General Election offering, Nick Clegg promised ‘one of our front-page manifesto commitments will be to protect the education budget from nursery to 19-year-olds, from cradle to college’. In adopting the phrase ‘from Cradle to College’ he also unintentionally highlighted a sharp contrast with his party’s promise at the 2010 Election to abolish tuition fees for higher education in England on the basis they were ‘wrong’ and ‘unfair’.
Of course, Clegg’s team pursued one of the biggest U-Turns of recent political history after the 2010 Election, supporting a near tripling of fees for most undergraduate degree courses in England, a switch justified on the basis that funds were tight and early years education needed to be prioritised instead. As these reforms also entailed withdrawing direct state funding for the teaching of undergraduate degree programmes in arts, humanities and social sciences, having fought the 2010 General Election arguing that higher education is an important social good requiring state investment, in office they saw little need to invest directly in education services once the recipients had completed compulsory schooling: a ‘cradle to college’ model indeed.
David Cameron seemed to share much the same view as his Coalition partner, not only in leading the tuition fee reforms, but also in his party’s agenda for young people more generally. Notably, in his 2013 Conservative Party Conference speech, Cameron argued that social security should not be available for under-25s, who should be either ‘earning or learning’. Yet, those in their twenties have fared worse than any other group since the economic crisis, suggesting that there are significant gaps in social protection for young people at present.
The Rise of the Knowledge Economy Orthodoxy
Much of the policy debate about the challenges young people face has rightly focused on the most marginalised, but as some authors argue, there is also a clear need to examine the youth transitions of ‘the missing middle’, the ‘ordinary kids’ that lie between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged. Doing so in the context of modern labour markets, it is suggested, entails examining the experiences of graduates in order to capture the increasingly common ‘slow track’ transitions many young people make due to lengthening periods of education.
That the proportion of young people participating in higher education has increased significantly in recent years is well known, the percentage of graduates in the UK population rising from 17% in 1992 to 28% by 2012. In part this is because a ‘knowledge economy orthodoxy’ is now firmly entrenched in political rhetoric, boosting skills seen as key to individual and national success. Tony Blair believed that the Keynesian welfare state had ‘broken down [because] globalisation has placed a premium on workers with the skills and knowledge to adapt to advancing technology’. Cameron shared the view that ‘Britain is in a global race to succeed’ and that one of the key steps to ‘winning’ the race is ‘reform[ing] education so we turn out the brightest graduates’; however, he allied this with a perceived necessity to ‘deal with our deficit [and] cut business taxes so we can compete’.
There was always something of a ‘magic bullet’ element to the knowledge economy rhetoric, an assumption that a degree automatically brings economic rewards to its holder. Indeed, this was the justification for repeatedly increasing tuition fees. But it is telling that the expansion of universities has been relatively free from broader attempts at social and economic planning. For instance, while much knowledge economy rhetoric is bound to the language of ‘technological revolution’, there has been no serious attempt to use the expansion of student places to rebalance provision towards subjects such as computer science or engineering.
That this should be so is unsurprising given that, like other liberal market economies, the UK’s has long favoured the development of general skills over technical specialisms; moreover, such an emphasis appeared to be serving the successful growth of the UK’s financial and business services sector during the Blair-Brown boom years. However, the global financial crisis not only exposed the fragility of some parts of the UK’s economy, it also began to shine a light on the ‘slow-track’ transitions of a large number of young people graduating from universities, as the rising unemployment rate for recent graduates and the ‘underemployment’ of graduates gained increased media attention. Echoing the 1980s, some talk of a ‘lost generation’ has even surfaced; while few use such bold labels, academic work has shown that graduates making bumpy transitions are negatively affected in terms of their long-term career and earnings potential.
As it has become increasingly clear that a university degree provides an entry to the race but not a place on the podium, the paradoxical position graduates occupy in social policy has become clearer. While the knowledge economy orthodoxy has made expanding access to universities a priority for all governments, the presumption that graduates are fully equipped for the labour market has meant that support for new graduates seeking work has been limited. While Gordon Brown’s government introduced targeted support at the height of the economic crisis – such as the ‘graduate talent pool’ (maintained by the Coalition), and some other niche schemes are in operation, as more people complete degrees questions about how effective mainstream employment services – chiefly those provided by JobCentrePlus – are in supporting unemployed graduates becomes a ever more important.
Supporting the Transitions of Young Graduates
Evidence on graduates views of these services is not generally positive. Indeed, recent research has shown that young unemployed recent graduates, who turn to JobCentrePlus for help, often find that the service is not well equipped to help them because their efforts are targeted so heavily at those without degrees. As one young person interviewed for this research put it ‘If you were a graduate, they’d sort of see you as someone who either ought to have a job already, or definitely won’t have much trouble getting one’.
Data on usage of JobCentrePlus consistently shows graduates comprise only around 5% of its service users and that even amongst recent graduates relatively few find work through JobCentrePlus, with only around 1 in 20 doing so. In part this seems to be because many graduates simply opt out of the welfare state’s social security and employment services, seeing them as for ‘others’; as one young recent graduate told researchers recently, ‘I would imagine most graduates might just think that [it] is ‘something that is not relevant to me’.
It is of course the case that not all young unemployed recent graduates can afford to opt-out of the social security system, meaning wider social inequalities are likely being reinforced in subtle ways as young people make increasingly complex transitions to adulthood. It is well established that access to ‘elite’ universities is socially patterned, and that those graduating from ‘elite’ Russell Group universities are less likely to be underemployed and have higher average salaries. This reinforces how young people are far from a homogeneous group and that aspects of difference continue to shape young peoples transitions to adulthood.
The knowledge economy orthodoxy masks these inequalities, presuming all graduates to be privileged. In reality, social policy frameworks are likely to be exacerbating inequalities as unemployed graduates requiring financial support face an increasingly stringent system of sanctioning that appears to be primarily focused on reducing claimant counts. It is interesting to note here that recent graduates may have featured heavily in some Universal Credit trials; given the policy aims to remove barriers to work by ensuring recipients are always better off in work this means claimants should normally accept offers of work – even zero hours work – and this may create still starker choices for unemployed graduates from low income households. Some critics have suggested that the ‘choosiness’ of job seekers contributes to unemployment and is ignored by social policy analysts; if Universal Credit continues in its current vein, debates over when and on what basis it is legitimate for an unemployed recent graduate to turn down a zero hours contract for a job unrelated to their degree may gain attention and serve to underline that there are often reasonable grounds for jobseekers to exercise ‘choosiness’.
Extended Transitions Need an Extended Welfare State to Match
Though not intended to do so, Clegg’s ‘cradle to college’ soundbite captures well a weakspot in current social policy frameworks in England. While non-graduates fared worse than graduates during the economic crisis, this does not mean the ‘missing middle’ are not worthy of further attention. We would argue that a stronger focus on their experiences is merited in order to address the social and economic risks we highlight above. But more than this, if the welfare state is to appeal to the Millennials as a progressive and protective institution then greater attention to their experiences is essential. If a generation of graduates are asked to pay for their own education, and are excluded from, or effectively opt-out of, income protection and job search services during a crucial and often precarious transition, then surely there is a risk they will increasingly see the welfare state as a burdensome extra offering little for them? This, of course, may well be the intention of some policy makers.
Adam Formby is Teaching Fellow at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. He previously worked in the Chronic Disorders of Consciousness Research Unit at the University of York. His research interests include graduate unemployment, employment services and extended transitions. John Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of York. His research interests include social policy in the knowledge economy and comparative political economy of welfare.