IS TERTIARY EDUCATION PUTTING THE FUTURE LABOUR MARKETS AT RISK?
BY SIMON CHRISTOPH
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Name: Simon Christoph
Occupation: Doctoral Student at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences
Research Interests: Social inequalities (esp. educational inequalities) and social stratification, social capital and social networks, social integration of immigrants and its consequences
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▐ Without a doubt, education is one of the most important dimensions of status attainment. It has an immeasurably higher influence on individual’s life chances and future access to the labour market than any other kinds of factors or resources.
Against this background, this essay will discuss whether the role of higher education will and should remain as important in the future. Considering restrictions of length and complexity that the topic imposes, I will discuss this by referring primarily to the German labour market, since it is the biggest labour market within the European Union. At first glance, it might sound counterintuitive that higher education might not be as important as is often assumed, especially because the OECD continues to reprimand Germany for its low share of academics, but I intend to show that there are good reasons to doubt that Germany needs higher degree graduates. If the trend we currently observe continues in the future, we might be faced with a situation in which the supply of the so-called ‘specialists’ exceeds the labour markets’ demand for them, rendering them and their expertise superfluous, and, in turn, leaving a large number of highly skilled workers professionally inactive.
In the course of educational expansion, which can be observed in all highly developed countries (though not to the same extent), society has become increasingly more qualified. Nevertheless, at the same time, many European countries still struggle with high unemployment rates, and, in some cases, also a severe problem with youth unemployment. Although not as pronounced in Germany, the question arises how this trend will continue. It is a widespread truism, which has been repeatedly proven empirically, that higher education generally protects one from unemployment. Although this seems to be true in Germany for the most part, the unemployment rate for academics has increased steadily within the last five years, although it still remains comparatively low. However, statistically speaking, people in Germany become more highly educated year after year, and university graduates are still fairly well protected against job losses.
___ Does this, consequently, mean that the more university degrees one gets, the better?
Well, let’s have a look at European countries with a high proportion of university students. For example, in every country in the EU where the amount of people with tertiary education is higher than in Germany, the unemployment rate in the tertiary sector is higher than in Germany. Putting the unemployment rate of the tertiary sector in relation to the overall unemployment rate of each country, the UK, Lithuania and Hungary are the only countries that have a lower proportion of unemployed higher educated individuals than Germany (for details and illustration, see figure 1). This implies that an increase in the number of students is likely to correspond with rising unemployment rates over time. Nevertheless, using mere descriptive statistics is not the ideal solution, as it neglects the complex interaction between educational systems and labour markets. My intention here, however, is not to draw conclusions from these data, but rather to illustrate my rationale and the preliminary evidence supporting it.
You might be wondering whether my argument is relevant, given the well-known shortage of specialized workforce on the German labour market. Shouldn’t Germany “produce” as many graduates as possible to reverse this situation? In that respect, it is very important to clarify that not everyone who holds a university degree is a specialist – to be precise, a specialist within the public and political debate is nearly always a person who is an expert in one of the so-called STEM-subjects. But what about all the other possible fields of work for university graduates? To keep things simple, let us consider my alumni friends, who graduated with non-technology-related degrees. Are there enough jobs for them at the moment? Well, the answer is, as usual, it depends. Some of them indeed found a job relatively quickly (e.g. those who stayed at the university and now work as research associates), but the others, who currently work at various companies, had to search for a position for quite a long time, while working all kinds of temporary jobs, even though most of them had good grades and/or a lot of internship/professional experience.
___ A pattern emerges behind the job searching activities of young graduates
Such observations are seemingly quite common and have been extensively documented in the scientific literature. However, upon closer inspection and a few minor exceptions aside, a pattern emerges behind the job searching activities of such young graduates. Namely, they are all highly motivated at the onset of their search, applying for the best positions they could possibly hope for, but over time, they progressively lower their expectations, so that by the time they actually do find a job, it is far from the ideal they had hoped to land in the beginning. Of course, everyone heard those university teachers and professors, who warned us at the beginning of our studies that it is not very easy to find a job if you’re majoring in sociology, political science, communication science or the like. It is a typical argument that there are very few job advertisements explicitly looking for these graduates. However, there is one problem with these warnings: when you are young and idealistic, and have just begun your studies, you usually do not care about your future career prospects. Why? Because the internet is full of examples of exciting-sounding job titles for social and cultural scientists, and experts from the humanities, including “opinion and market researcher”, “public relations manager”, “advertising specialist”, “human resources manager”, or “marketing manager”1. Based solely on these examples, yes, one could conclude that at the moment there are certain positions out there with a very high demand for academics.
These jobs, however, are highly competitive. The labour market offers a large variety of positions with flexible and generic job descriptions that can be performed by graduates from a number of different majors. The consequence of such a state of affairs is that these jobs are highly coveted and difficult to attain (e.g. this applies to jobs suitable for business scientists, communication scientists, psychologists, social scientists, humanists, mathematicians, etc.). This highly competitive environment necessitates that only the very best can prevail. All in all, competition between graduates of different fields of study is clearly recognizable and, therefore, has to raise the following questions: will the increase in our society’s higher education levels continue to such a degree that there will be less demand for the same amount of university graduates than today (except for technology-related graduates)? Will this end in the progressive marginalization of less educated people by highly educated people, who will, henceforth, be performing the jobs of the formerly less educated? What can the less educated then do? Will there be enough (new) jobs for them? Will the labour market regulate this by itself? A glance at the overall unemployment rate – and especially an international comparison of the overall unemployment rate – can help answer this question. In short, it doesn’t seem very likely.
___ "Study! Do something worthwhile with your life, so that you don’t have to worry later."
Considering that there are already a number of bottlenecks in the employment market for academics, including the fact that part-time work and temporary contracts are common phenomena, not only at universities, where they are considered standard, an improvement seems barely conceivable. Have we reached an impasse? What can we do to overcome it? My impression is that education, especially higher education, has a mighty – and almost incomparable – importance in our society. Allow me to add a personal example at this point: When I began studying Sociology, everyone without an academic background looked up to me, and I always had the feeling that they thought I have a bright future ahead of me, and will earn much more money someday than they do. Well, this could still be true, but I think the actual demands of the labour market for a lot of the scientific disciplines (to generalize: the ones without a specific job profile) are often dramatically overestimated among the wider population. I would probably not be exaggerating if I said that studying tends to be viewed as a panacea for most problems in our society. Hasn’t anyone ever given you the advice to “Study! Do something worthwhile with your life, so that you don’t have to worry later”? While true in principle, I would say the problem is that many young people study because it simply seems like something that they have to do. And if they don’t have any clear career aspirations, they study whatever sounds interesting to them, simply for the sake of studying.
This is precisely where we need to reexamine the society’s deeply held systems of beliefs. Has the increasing academisation of training professions, for example, really opened up the right path? Considering the increasing number of university graduates, and the difficulties posed the complex and demanding structure of the labor market they have to navigate, I think we should shift our focus and encourage people to focus more on disciplines the different sectors of the labour market currently lack, but really need to thrive. The technical sector requires particularly highly educated people, for instance. However, we will continue to require increasing numbers of caregivers, educators, tradesmen, artisans, etc., which means we need to make sure that they receive a fair payment and respect for their work, thus increasing the attractiveness of such professions. And this should definitely not be read as a plea for less education: we definitely need experts in non-technology-related fields, but we don’t need people who just study for the sake of studying. Education, after all, is not exclusively the domain of universities. They only provide highly specialized knowledge and skill training, which are not useful or desirable for all of us. Trade schools and vocational trainings, with their different focus, also prepare young people for their entry into the labor market. In my opinion, we need an educational system that will not only equip its graduates with specialized, subject-related knowledge, but one that will give them a sense of purpose. An educational system, which will indicate the multitude of paths that young people can take; that will take into account the current needs of the labor market, and help hone the young professionals’ goals against this backdrop. ◼
Source: Eurostat Database:
checked on 22.06.2016, unfortunately there are no better corresponding age groups
Proportion of the overall population that graduated in the tertiary sector, age group 30-34: Germany: 31.4%; Croatia: 32.2%; Hungary: 34.1%; Greece: 37.2%; Latvia: 39.9%; Austria: 40.0%; Slovenia: 41.0%; Poland: 42.1%; Spain: 42.3%; Estonia: 43.2%; France: 43.7%; Belgium: 43,8%; Netherlands: 44.8%; Denmark: 44.9%; Finland: 45.3%; UK: 47.7%; Sweden 49.9%; Ireland: 52.2%; Cyprus: 52.5%; Luxemburg: 52.7%; Lithuania: 53.3%
Proportion of unemployed in tertiary sector, age group 25-64: Germany: 2.5%; Hungary:2.7%; UK: 2.7%; Luxemburg: 3.6%; Austria: 3.7%; Lithuania: 3.7%; Netherlands: 3.9%; Sweden 4.0%; Poland: 4.1%; Belgium: 4.2%; Denmark: 4.5%; Estonia: 4.7%; Finland: 5.1%; Latvia: 5.1%; France: 5.8%; Slovenia: 6.0%; Ireland: 6.1%; Croatia: 9.0%; Cyprus: 10.8%; Spain: 13.8%; Greece: 19.1%
Overall unemployment rate: Germany: 5.0%; Austria: 5.6%; Luxemburg: 6.0%; UK: 6.1%; Denmark: 6.6%; Netherlands: 6.9%; Estonia: 7.4%; Poland: 7.5%; Hungary: 7.7%; Sweden 7.9%; Belgium: 8.5%; Finland: 8.7%; Slovenia: 9.7%; France: 10.3%; Lithuania: 10.7%; Latvia: 10.8%; Ireland: 11.3%; Cyprus: 16.1%; Croatia: 17.3%; Spain: 24.5%; Greece: 26.5%
1 Marketing and advertisement has the highest academia unemployment rate (Bundesagentur für Arbeit, 2013), what can be seen as an obvious indicator for how many graduates want to work in this area and that there already is a surplus of these graduates on the labour market.
Acknowledgements: This essay benefited from the very helpful comments made by Ansgar Hudde, Prof. Dr. Ilona Relikowski, Prof. Dr. Michael Gebel and Agata Maria Kraj (names in order of commentary).
Publication: The article was first published in the printed programme of the Annual BAGSS Conference 2016, page 41-45. Download a PDF Version of the programme here(9.7 MB, 68 pages).
Image Credits: © Patrik Gohte