Talking to Taxi Drivers …
About higher education
I take taxis. A little too often, if truth be told. And I enjoy talking to the taxi drivers. Usually, one way or another, once we have exhausted Sadiq Khan (the Mayor of London, bad), bike lanes (bad) and Uber (very bad), we talk about caring for elderly parents and our respective children's careers and future. They tell me, with pride, about their sons and daughters and their choice of 'uni'.
Their pride is a potent reminder of how far we have come. We have taken down many of the barriers to access to higher education - not all, but many.
Perhaps ... we have reached the limits of the proportion of school-leavers who can benefit from a degree. Perhaps ... some students would benefit more from a vocational or technical qualification short of a degree. Perhaps ... there are university programmes where the outcomes do not justify the expense. Perhaps ... we should put more resources into further rather than higher education. Perhaps indeed ... though I observe that it is always 'other people's kids' who should not be at university. Probably those of my taxi driver.
Overall, I am very positive, we have achieved a longstanding policy goal and have, as a consequence, a better educated workforce and aided social mobility. We can justifiably celebrate.
There is however, a small but growing challenge. Increasingly, access to graduate jobs, that lead to sustainable well-paid careers, are gated by holding a Masters degree rather than a Bachelors degree. This makes sense from the employers standpoint. Changes in secondary (school) education means that a 3-year degree programme cannot accommodate the learning that was hitherto expected from a University graduate. The complexity and skills requirements of graduate jobs continues to grow. UK graduates must compete with graduates from other countries where a Masters degree (German Diplom, Italian Laurea, or similar) is the default outcome.
Masters degrees are the option for the secure and monied. They generally cost upwards of £10,000 (much more in some cases) and require a year out of earning. Loans are difficult to access. Taking on a Masters degree whilst working, sometimes an option, assumes not only confidence and a progressive employer, but also access to significant financial resources. For many of the new generation 'first in family' graduates, postgraduate study is unfamiliar. It is difficult to explain to that family who have been focusing on graduation, and the well paying career that should accompany it, that more is required.
We need to shift our focus and get creative. If we treat Masters degrees as simply an opportunity for universities to substitute for underfunding in undergraduate education we will damage the good work we have done on participation. The barrier has shifted and higher education must respond.