Can you ever be ‘overeducated’?

New ONS data  shows a third of graduates with more education that is required for the work they were doing 2017. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. Many other studies have reached similar conclusions. What is significant is that rather than focusing on those that have left university in the last few months (many of whom will take temporary /low-paid employment immediately after finishing), the ONS cohort  stretches back to 2007,  showing 29%  of those who  graduated five years ago. as  ‘overeducated’ for their current employment – compared with 22% of those who graduated in 1992.

Overall the ONS report shows about I in 6 of all 16-64s have more education that they need for the work they do, casting further doubts on arguments about skill shortages,  but if only UK born workers are included the figure is  1 in 10  – reflecting the fact that migrant workers are more likely to be highly educated and dispelling other myths about immigration.

ONS compares individuals in the cohort with the average level of qualifications for the job they do. The problem with this (something  acknowledged in the report), is that as the qualifications of applicants rise, so does the norm for what’s expected. In other words applicants need higher qualification because employers now expect this, not because the job itself has become technically more sophisticated.

This report will fuel arguments of those who want to reduce the number of young people going to university, those who call for better ‘vocational alternatives’ and those who claim that the large increase in the number of ‘firsts’ (and top grades for A-level) must mean standards are falling. But on the contrary,  you can understand why young people might well be studying harder, even if as employment opportunities remain limited, this is through economic necessity ( having a degree still earns you more than if you don’t) rather than as a result of a ‘love of learning’ .   We shouldn’t ignore the thousands of students who still say they enjoy their courses however, despite the fees.  After all,  being over-qualified for the labour market, doesn’t mean you have leant too much. In many respects the opposite may be true! Can you ever be overeducated?

It isn’t just that gaining qualifications is now an instrumental activity for more and more young people. During the post-war period, education was considered a ‘welfare’ or a ‘merit’ good providing significant benefits for society. The growing number of ‘middle’ occupations demanded higher levels of skills – one reason why grammar schools were replaced by comprehensives to allow for greater mobilisation of talent. Rather than too many people attending university, we should instead be concerned that large numbers are still not able to?   The real problem today is that in a polarised labour market where social mobility has gone into reverse, education has now become a ‘positional’ good where one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. As a result, reinforced by league tables and high stakes testing, education becomes a zero-sum good.

9 thoughts on “Can you ever be ‘overeducated’?

  1. It’s worth remembering that the Robbins Report of 1963 actually put forward four aims of higher education.

    One of these was “instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour” that we could losely call the ‘training’ aspect of HE that is referred to in this ONS report and has dominated government thinking, particularly Conservative and right-wing thinking but was also a driver for New Labour under Blair and Brown.

    However this ‘instruction in skills’ aim was seen by the Committee as no less or more important than the other three.

    The second principle that the committee argued for was as follows:

    while emphasising that there is no betrayal of values when institutions of higher education teach what will be of some practical use, we must postulate that what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind. The aim should be to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women. And it is the distinguishing characteristic of a healthy higher education that, even where it is concerned with practical techniques, it imparts them on a plane of generality that makes possible their application to many problems – to find the one in the many, the general characteristic in the collection of particulars. It is this that the world of affairs demands of the world of learning. And it is this, and not conformity with traditional categories, that furnishes the criterion of what institutions of higher education may properly teach.”

    The notion that society can have the ‘general powers of the mind’ promoted more than needed is genuinely laughable, but seems to have become a new neo-liberal orthodoxy that should be challenged at every opportunity..

  2. Agree. But I’d like to think that Robbins would have been as forthcoming faced with a ‘mass participatory’ HE system, rather than one designed for the few.

    1. Of course, but Robbins did support expansion and was a framework for what came later, in particular the Crosland and Polytechnic binary expansion period that eventually led towards mass participation policies. The four overall purposes of HE from Robbins are still very relevant today, though I think the transmission of a ‘common culture and citizenship’ one would be interpreted with somewhat different values of tolerance and social norms in a 21st century modern society than the fag end of the British Empire that Robbins existed in.. (Perry Anderson’s ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ at the same time as Robbins gives a good context and critique of the elite British system of the time and its limitations relative to other capitalist economies.)

      1. Anderson’s ‘Components of the National Culture’ in Cockburn and Blackburn (eds) 1969 Penguin Special ‘Student Power’ still holds as a diagnosis of English empiricism and academicism both of which have strengthened since then in the country’s elite HE which dominates the whole of what is now the Tertiary Education of which it is a part.

  3. In an answer to your question can you be overeducated?’ and despite the use of this term by the ONS, the answer is plainly no because there is always more to be learned and often the beginning of knowledge is to begin to comprehend how little you know. However, it is plainly possible to be overcertified and this plainly occurs in what has long been ‘A Certified Society’, as eg. above: ‘In other words applicants need higher qualification because employers now expect this, not because the job itself has become technically more sophisticated.’

    1. Could not agree more! I meant to respond vigourously to the Guardian article on the ONS findings by reminding everybody that we should be talking about underemployment (-ie insufficient appropriate jobs for grads rather than over-education. The three main problems, though, are simply a) thinking of education as a means to getting a job, and b) really thinking about what it IS for – and consequently, what is good and useful education and what is simply a commodity to be consumed to prove worthy of a credential. And c) lack of analysis of the relationship between credentials, knowledge and skills.

  4. Despite years of ‘reform’, the dominant view, particularly in this country (aka England) continues to be that ‘academic’- education should only be available to a few – in other words rather than being ‘overeducated’ there should be vocational alternatives (what was previously referred to as ‘industrial training’) for the majority. This strategy hasn’t worked as young people are well aware of the status disparities between different types of knowledge (the new post-16 T-levels will never enjoy anything approaching the credential value of A-level and as a result, have limited take-up). Even more reason for campaigning for a GOOD GENERAL EDUCATION FOR EVERYBODY.

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