University’s not the answer - and young people know it

A degree isn’t an easy escape from poverty. Students know they can succeed without education, writes Roshan Doug

Social mobility: young people don't need university degrees, they need access to well-paid jobs

Despite what some might say, there is a clear correlation between poverty and educational attainment.

It’s something educationalists and policymakers have been trying to address for at least the past couple of decades. Ultimately, we have to strive for a socially fair, meritocratic and egalitarian society.


Opinion:  Is it a good idea to push students into doing degrees?

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News:  Gap between rich and poor pupils ‘stagnating’


There is a lot of talk about inclusion and diversity, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that our country is deeply class ridden.

According to a 2016 Sutton Trust report, 50 to 75 per cent of elite jobs go to privately educated, middle-class people – often with soft skills that resonate with the custodians of those professions. And yet such people make up a mere 7 per cent of the population as a whole.

Recent research studies also show that it doesn’t matter what degree you've got because it’s equally – if not more – important to have the right accent, the dress code, the manners, the behaviour and social etiquette that speak of cultural capital.

Our system of education does not do away with class, or the instruments that permit exclusion to not only take place but strengthen and accentuate it. Our education – the way it is organised, structured and delivered – perpetuates snobbery and elitism, and enables prejudice and discrimination to fester.

Education, social policy and we, as a society, have failed.

The narrative

At the moment, educational management in some (not all) schools and colleges tackle social mobility without much conviction, thought or coordination. What some teachers do is to try to perpetuate the idea that if you work hard, you will succeed. It’s as simple as that. They tell pupils and students that hard work and diligence will pay off, that academia is everything, that exam results are (still) the exclusive indicators of success in society.

Now, to a large extent, such a narrative worked well with the older generations, including my own. This was partly because, at the time, education was a field that was held in high esteem. It was a beacon, a hiatus of success that was both prized and valued. Young people bought into the idea that if they got into university, they would be set for life. Higher education would enable them to buy a house and car, and pursue a good career in which they would be able to climb up the salary ladder to a decent pension on retirement.

My generation believed this because there was no other option, no other way of moving out of poverty.

As a working-class boy of Indian immigrant parents, and growing up in one of the most deprived areas in Britain, it was clear to me that the only way I was going to leave my environment was by getting into higher education. A university degree would act as a passport to other worlds.

People of my generation and/or social and cultural background lacked confidence and didn’t know any better than what our parents and teachers told us. Everything led to the old adage that education and academic success together were everything.

As a result, we didn’t think seriously about going into sports, music or the arts because we were told that these are precarious fields that offered very little job security. Instead we were directed towards academia – subjects such as medicine or law or engineering. It was believed that success in these fields was bound to set us up for life.

Today's young people

But such a narrative is no longer convincing. Today’s young people don’t buy into such simplicity. Neither do they believe they need or want the kind of education colleges and universities are offering. Why take out a loan, work on assignments for three or four years to get a certificate in some academic subject whose contents will bear little resemblance to reality while hoping for – at best – an average salary that will keep you just above the poverty breadline?

Young people are streetwise, savvy and know when they’re being lied to. They are also far more clued-up, far more ambitious than I ever was at their age. As a result, I have admiration for them. I like their forthright attitude, their sassiness, their temerity, their ability to see through this educational magic trick in which we’re all complicit.

Financially, pursuing a degree qualification makes little sense, especially as there are so many new ways of making money.

For instance, young people these days know they can make a decent living by being a hit on the internet. They can broadcast themselves on YouTube – discussing games, make-up, clothes and fashion, music and dance and sports like football. Many of them can see other millionaire YouTubers making more money in a month (by getting likes and subscribers) than most teachers can make in a year.

Of course, this phenomenon is just an illusion, a pipe dream. But, to young people, the prospect of quick money and fame is enticing. If people like the Kardshanians can become celebrities by simply being famous, what reason is there for them to pursue education or any of the limited number of vocational courses currently on offer by further education colleges?

The vicious circle of poverty

Politicians, educationalists and policymakers have got to provide young people with an alternative – something that will help them get out of the vicious circle of poverty.

Politicians need to provide young people with decent, well-paid jobs. If we are serious about wanting to tackle the depth of scourge in our society – such as knife crime – then we need to provide young people with real prospects, not just politicians' promises. We need to give them jobs with salaries to make sure they can support themselves and their families.

How much longer are we going to carry on pumping up the service industry? How much longer are we going to rely on foreign exports because our own industries are no longer financially viable? Or how much longer are we going to sacrifice home-bred talent and skills from working-class young people ostensibly on the grounds that they’re not polished enough or don’t have the right accent?

It’s not that our teenagers don’t want to work, nor do they lack the intelligence or education to stack shelves in a supermarket. What youngsters want – what we all want – is a good future for ourselves and our children. We all want a fairer society, with equal opportunities for success and social mobility.

The repetition of the old mantra about education, education, education is no longer going to wash – not with society at large and certainly not with our young people. Unless we tackle poverty and social mobility in a purposeful and meaningful way, we are going to maintain the chasm that exists between the rich elite and the poorer classes. And that is not the kind of society that would benefit us or our country’s future.

Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham

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