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Chris Targett
31 March 2016

Sometimes it is useful to gaze into the crystal ball and look at what might be, helping us prepare for various possibilities. Such gazing of course needs to be done with caution, as history tells us the reality is likely to be different to anything we can imagine. We should also be cautious with regards to our own subjective bias and tendency to either dwell too much on the pessimistic or optimistic. Even making ‘safe’ predictions using factual data and established algorithms can cause problems. For example, “during the recent financial crisis it became clear that banks and rating agencies had been relying on models which…failed to reflect financial risk in the real world”. Chaos is all around us: what could happen may happen, from a spectrum of dystopian to utopian scenarios, with the reality often falling somewhere messily between the two.This article is the start of a series of occasional posts with regards to the various scenarios we may face in the not too distant future and how these may impact how we manage our own careers and career management activities in schools and colleges.

Our first scenario follows a train of thought which postulates upon the consequences of the Government's proposed retrospective changes to the tuition fee system possibly as an answer (by the backdoor) to the Skills Commission’s recent future forecasts with regards the shape of the labour market and the supply of graduates outstripping demand. This is combined with the agenda by the Government to create and encourage more young people to take up apprenticeships.

Two things happened over the last few months; the Skills Commission produced a report called Guide to the Skills System, detailing their predictions of where the labour market is heading. Typically this is an hour glass economy,  with zero hour jobs and low skilled roles at the bottom, a squeeze on traditional middle income careers and a range of graduate opportunities at the top but, with more graduates available than opportunities. In the autumn, the Chancellor proposed to retrospectively change the terms by which repayments to student loans occur. Martin Lewis, the popular financial expert and chair for the independent task force on student finance information, has begun a legal challenge to this. He notes that with regular loans the terms cannot be changed once accepted by both parties.

We begin to wonder if the Government changing the terms of student finance injects a significant degree of doubt into the system. Students who would have been confident in knowing that their debt would be written off after thirty years if not fully paid, are then left in a situation where there is doubt whether this will always remain the case. For those whose finances are limited, we accept it would be reasonable that many students would reconsider whether they could afford to take this risk. This would have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of students wishing to follow higher education.

As a result of this the supply of graduates would be reduced, thereby affecting the supply and demand issue without a confrontation between the public and government; it could become a change agenda by stealth.  Those students who can't afford the tuition fees are left to consider the options which are left to them. With a strong link between training and earnings, this leaves Apprenticeships and School Leaver Schemes a viable and interesting alternative to University; fulfilling the government agenda of encouraging and creating further apprenticeships by 2020.

Such a shift would leave students disenfranchised from the broader ideals of higher education which were touted at the start of the 21st Century and the commitment to widening participation and social mobility. No longer does it become a society where the brightest talents from all walks of life can shine at University but, one where you can only move in this direction if you have the finances to do so. If this train of thought is followed through to a more distant future, we could end up with a reduction in courses being offered at universities due to less students going; thereby significantly raising their relative value to graduate employers. It may also become the norm that students from lower incomes will have to compete for university scholarships (much like the American system) to fund their studies or face a potentially fluctuating loans system. 

In the end our future shock leads us to a two tier society and decline in the middle classes. Our Arts will be marginalized within universities, due to the reduced financial benefits perceived by some in an Arts education, unless supported by the sector. This may become exacerbated by the increase in Artists not being paid, due to free streaming of music and visual content being available for “free” through the undisciplined use of creative commons licenses. Perhaps these will become pursuits which are more commonly followed alongside “regular work” in the lineage of the colliery bands from across the country in the previous century. Instead of colliery bands we may have musical bands of network technicians, care or retail staff, whose careers as musicians are more likely to be followed alongside another job instead of at university.

A counter culture of education or revolution may thrive in this context with students and employers accepting ‘graduates’ from online portals such as the Open University and other courses running online, like the Nano Degrees being offered by the world’s technology giants. Some of these courses can run with substantially lower costs and in the longer term we may find a proliferation of free courses taking a dominant position in the choices young people consider; could these become a foundation or common route for a destabilised higher education funding system? 

Admittedly this is a future shock scenario which, takes us to an extreme but not impossible scenario. Many in the sector are aware of the arguably unsustainable university funding system and the feeling among some graduates that their degrees are near worthless, due to the sheer volume of competition. Having a degree now isn’t enough on its own; students are repeatedly told to increase their transferable skills and gain experience at the same time, to make themselves more attractive to potential employers. Yet, despite the competition for places after graduation, students still hold onto their dreams and see higher education as a way to reach, if not these, at least an opportunity in the graduate job market.

We must remember, that with all jobs and career pathways there is competition. With apprenticeships the competition comes at the time of application, before the study and toil; with graduate opportunities it comes after the study. There is no guaranteed job but, at present at least the system is relatively stable and the constants are known to a certain extent. Would you consider higher education if this wasn’t the case?

Written by: Chris Targett

Originally published on the CXK blog, Monday 25th January 2016

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