Education and the reserve army of labour


Post-16 educator No 59


Andrew Gamble’s 2009 book The Spectre at the Feast follows Marx in seeing ‘One of the key functions of economic crisis is to reconstitute the reserve army of labour’ (p.47). As Gamble argues, this previously occurred at the time of the last recession which ended ‘the long boom’ of more or less full employment for men at least from 1945-73. Monetarist economics then relied on maintaining millions in poverty as a drag on the wages and a threat to the conditions of those working longer hours in full-time employment.

The reconstitution of the RAL involved in the state’s resolution of the latest capitalist crisis goes further than in the 1970s and involves education to an extent it has not done before. There was though a precedent for what Martin Allen and I have called ‘Education without jobs’ (Ainley and Allen 2010, p.13) in the Training without Jobs described by Finn in 1987. Then, with the return of permanent and structural unemployment, education and training were implicated through the provision of worthless vocational certification in reconstituting a ‘rough’, ‘semi-’ or ‘unskilled’ section of the formerly manually working industrial proletariat into an irregularly employed peripheral so-called ‘underclass’.

Education to all levels was also complicit in ‘upgrading’ occupations in the expanded services, sales, middle-management and administration of a post-industrial economy in which much manual labour that was not automated and deskilled was exported, especially to China. Expanded higher education in particular provided supposedly higher level courses certifying the ‘skills’ required for many of the new and often graduatised jobs in the new ‘knowledge economy’.

Implications for education

Increasingly flexible working across sectors to contract in a competitive race to the bottom, not only with national and international companies seeking to deliver services for less than in-house but also – where possible – to outsource contracts abroad, has been the pattern in much of the private sector in recent years, contributing to The Credit Crunch (Turner 2008).

For previously secure welfare-state professionals, such outsourcing, along with the latest applications of new technology and the growth in services, produces the same effects that the automation and outsourcing of skilled manual work had upon apprenticed crafts in the 1970s. The introduction of ‘new public management’ has also transformed many salaried ‘professions’ like teaching so that they are reduced towards the conditions of waged labour. This ‘modernization of the public sector’, as Blair presented it, disorganizes dissent pitting individuals in competition against one another.

Insofar as institutionalized education and training have any remaining direct economic function therefore, it is not to construct some ‘new correspondence’ with a reconstructed economy but to inculcate such competitive attitudes into its pupils/ students and trainees. For, rather than ‘employer demand for skills’, it is the absence of work – particularly the disappearance of specific ‘youth jobs’ – that has been the reason for young people staying in full-time education for longer and experiencing a more prolonged transition to adulthood – if they are able to make a transition at all.

In the absence of work education has little economic rationality. It functions rather as the main means of social control over youth by enhancing existing divisions amongst young people. Students are divided from non-students but also amongst each other in a competing hierarchy of post-16 institutions.

Only some of those from elite universities are likely to be guaranteed ‘graduate jobs’. Others – possibly up to one in three graduates – are likely be ‘underemployed’ in jobs previously done by non-graduates, that is assuming they are able to find a job at all. As many of those in their late teens remain dependent upon their parents for much longer with nearly £25,000 of student debt (according to the latest Push Student survey), they are faced with a housing market which, despite moving from boom to bust, remains difficult to enter.


Collective appreciation of this increasingly common situation has been undermined by on-going class reformation mediated by the differentiating role of education to all levels referred to above. The ‘standards agenda’ in schools and ‘widening participation’ to HE have also contributed to ‘individualizing’ social class. So it is not surprising that surveys show students, even though they are aware that different types of courses and institutions attract people with different social characteristics, consider class differences as being unimportant in the determination of destinies and see their college or university as treating everybody ‘the same’.

Though becoming increasingly high stakes and competitive, ‘learning’ has also been reinvented as a personalised affair. The implication of being asked to take responsibility for their own learning is that students are also expected to regard their own failure as the consequence of individual inadequacies – ‘You only have yourself to blame’ if you do not achieve, as their F&HE teachers tell them.

While recognizing the role of business and media corporations in the promotion of a new identity culture, claims that the disappearance of the ‘old certainties’ of class from the consciousness of young people will result in new entrepreneurial strategies to survive the transition from youth to adulthood can be rejected. Neither is it the case that inter-generational inequalities are now the main dividing line within society as Willetts alleged (2009).

Even though young people may not be ‘class conscious’ in the traditional sense, class differences run through the process of transition from youth to adulthood. In particular, differences in economic power continue to determine access to the ‘good schools’ that ensure class advantages are maintained. For example, the 7% of the population (12% in London; 20% in Bristol) still able to afford private schooling can continue to be assured that not only are 50% of ‘A’ grades at A-level achieved by this sector, but that one third of those being privately educated will achieve three grade ‘As’. A place at a Russell university, while not certain, is therefore much more likely.

As graduates on average earn more than non-graduates and Russell graduates more still, it is quite understandable that young people continue to queue in large numbers for higher education despite speculation about just how much of a lifetime salary premium graduates may enjoy. However, while the relative advantages of being a graduate might hold up in a ‘labour queue’ for employment, the ratio between graduate earnings and graduate costs will fall as the balance between well-paid permanent employment and casualised ‘Mcjobs’ continues to tilt. The ‘graduatisation’ of a further tranche of jobs, mainly in retailing, is predictable.

Education’s credibility crunch

These developments threaten to burst the whole educational bubble of recent years. Students are mortgaging their increasingly uncertain futures for fees while many universities could be said to have speculated in sub-prime student markets. With qualification and grade inflation from GCSEs to degree classifications apparent to all save Vice-Chancellors and exam boards, concern persists about quality – including the basic literacy and numeracy of those deemed university ‘graduates’.

Not only in primary schools, teaching to the test has made subject knowledge and understanding a thing of the past as students prepare for a succession of competitive exams that start earlier and end later. Even where formal study allows genuine intellectual development, educational participation starts from thes largely instrumental motive of gaining labour market credentials. This is recognized as ‘overschooling’ when school, college and university graduates fail to find employment comparable to the level of qualification they have acquired as the value of this level of qualification declines.

Consequently, a crisis of legitimacy is endemic for overschooled but undereducated pupils/ students and their teachers/ lecturers  at all levels of learning from primary to postgraduate schools.

The heightened competition between the ‘free schools’ intended by Michael Gove’s ‘post-bureaucratic education’ is competition only in cramming for more ‘academic excellence’ exemplified by the independence of the private schools and is only for the few who can demonstrate more or less expensively acquired cultural capital in tests of levels of literacy. For the rest, vocational qualifications become even ‘more practical’ increasing the very inequalities that the ‘new’ Tory Party now officially abhors.

In any case, what was ignored by all the calls during the general election campaign for vocational relevance and a return to apprenticeships (the Conservative manifesto promised 400,000 but the Coalition has announced only 50,000) was the fundamental fact that most employers no longer require apprentices. Any employers who do need them run in-house apprenticeship schemes but precious few remain. ‘The demands of employers’, like recently retired Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy, amount to ‘paperwork kept to a minimum and instructions simple’ (quoted in The Daily Mail 14/10/2009)!

Raising the school leaving age to warehouse young people in schools and colleges is perhaps preferable to preparation for such employment as at least it can keep dreams alive. Certainly, cutting back on post-compulsory education relegates more people to the corrosive consequences of unemployment that are much more costly in the long term.

‘Part-time Britain’

In ‘part-time Britain’ most students and trainees are amongst the 27% of all workers now in part-time jobs, while 39% of all further, higher and adult students and trainees are also on part-time courses.

Today’s ‘education without jobs’ lasts much longer and is more far-reaching than Finn’s 1987 Training Without Jobs. The end of post-war full employment (for men at least) and the recreation of the RAL from the 1970s on, was, Gamble suggests, a permanent outcome of the Thatcherite resolution of the economic crisis of the welfare state. The new and expanded RAL under the reconfigured and reconsolidated new market and post-welfare state will – unless it is opposed and resisted – be equally permanent.

The new normality is prefigured in new patterns of part-time and temporary contractual employment that are reaching up the generations. Rather than condemning a stigmatized section of the formerly manually working class to long-term structural unemployment, as happened from the 1970s on, in the latest economic crisis the RAL is reconstituted so that part-time work and study/ training are intermitted throughout the life course of many more people. Institutionalised learning then plays a larger part in everyone’s life than previously, although including the ‘learningfare’ already familiar in FE where receipt of benefits has long been conditional on attendance on some courses.

If these developments are viewed as a form of work sharing, it can be argued that at least work is being shared more evenly amongst larger numbers of people. However, none of them are working to capacity, while those who are full-time employed continue to work the longest hours in Europe, while others remain full-time unemployed despite the benefit cuts and workfare regimes visited upon them.


Whether this part-time work with breaks between temporary contracts will afford opportunities, possibly using ubiquitous social networking, to organize and change the situation remains to be seen. Certainly, a full employment green economy presents the only sustainable alternative to the resumption of growth under the dominance of finance capital to which the current government is dedicated.

As education and training becomes even more involved in social control through learningfare and warehousing for youth (perhaps extending the National Citizens’ Service and other forms of ‘volunteering’ and ‘work experience’), those teachers and others fighting to return education to its true purposes of critically transmitting culture from the past in order to develop it in a sustainable future, whilst simultaneously struggling to maintain their positions against government attempts to outsource education at all levels, can use the critical space remaining to them to enable their students to understand their situation so that together with them they can overcome it.


Ainley, P. and Allen, M. Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education (London: Continuum).

Finn, D. (1987), Training Without Jobs, New Deals and Broken Promises (London: Macmillan).

Gamble, A. (2009) The Spectre at the Feast, Capitalist crisis and the politics of recession (Basingstoke: Palgravemacmillan).

Turner, G. (2008) The Credit Crunch, Housing Bubbles, Globalisation and the Worldwide Economic Crisis (London: Pluto).

Willetts, D. (2009) The Pinch. How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back (London: Atlantic Books).

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