Qualifications: creating or chasing jobs?

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal the qualifications divide between different parts of England. Subsequent comment has focussed on almost half of people in London (46.7%) holding a degree or similar qualification compared with under a third (28.6%) in areas like the north-east. The percentage in London was considerably higher than in the next highest region, the South East (35.8%, 2.7 million). In particular, the local authorities of the City of London (74.2%, 6,000) and Wandsworth (62.6%, 171,000) had the highest proportion of graduate level residents. In contrast, 35% of those who grow up in London get degrees.

Regional differences in education performance are used to emphasise the need for levelling up – and to highlight the ‘skills deficit’. It’s true that attainment gaps, particularly between schools in different areas, continue to exist, but do the large numbers of graduates who head for London bring their skills with them? Or does the capital serves as a magnet where the more highly qualified chase jobs, rather than create them? The diversity of London means it’s really the only place where it’s possible to get a job in pretty much anything, but one report found that 24.4 percent of new graduates relocated to the capital within six months after graduating, exceeding the 19 percent of British jobs available there. Far greater than anywhere else.

Researchers say geographical employment inequalities are exacerbated by graduates moving from more deprived areas of the country to cities to improve their career prospects. In general, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies report, by the time they are 27, graduates are 10 percentage points more likely than non-graduates, to have moved away from the area where they grew up. The IFS reports much larger gaps in some northern towns. But will opening sparkling ‘university centres’ in these areas change this?

Rather than qualifications equating to skills, employers use them as ‘proxies’, (sorting devices) being more likely to recruit those with (what are considered by educationalists to be) ‘high status’ qualifications, particularly from prestigious institutions – invariably knowing little about about the actual content of a course, top city firms are still wedded to Russell degrees. Whereas in Law it’s Oxford or Cambridge.

It is somewhat ironic that in the majority of cases ‘vocational’ qualifications are considered inferior to academic ones. This is not to say that certain occupations need applicants with specific subject qualifications, of course they do. But we should never underestimate the centrality of ‘on the job’ training in every role.

In this respect, though framed as a response to the employment opportunities that the economies of the 21st century were going to be able to create, Blair and Brown’s ‘education, education, education’ programme was a political project as much as an economic one. As the chart shows, New Labour was almost entirely responsible for the recent increases in educational participation. It successfully raised education levels, by making courses more accessible and increasing the range of qualifications available. This served as a framework for creating a new – if misplaced – optimism about social mobility and a ‘classless society’.

Even though the economy was expanding before Blair arrived, the result has been that the level of qualifications held by the population has increased at a greater rate than employment opportunities in highly paid jobs. Since then, Tory governments have attempted to put a break on the system, ostensibly by attempting to make exams harder, pricing young people out of higher education or trying to restrict the sorts of courses some universities are able to offer.  As a time when apprenticeship recruitment has levelled off, they’ve also continued to perpetuate an imaginary skills agenda by creating school and college-based T-levels.

3 thoughts on “Qualifications: creating or chasing jobs?

  1. Wasn’t there an announcement of a ‘multiversity’ or somesuch (re. your picture and remark about ‘sparling new uni centres in Northern towns)?

  2. Very interesting analysis Martin. Wasn’t aware of any of this research 

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