There may be trouble ahead

15 Jul

Graduation We have a problem. There's a perfect storm approaching for students and universities. Oversupply of graduates is meeting a shrinking jobs market just when the cost of higher education is about to jump.

What's a young person to make of this? They should shop carefully and decide whether and when higher education is the right decision for them. Education is priceless and the opportunity university brings is valuable. But it's not about the degree certificate alone; it's about the journey. Where should you begin your journey (which city, which university)? What should you study?

Students will have to become more businesslike, starting with 'brand me'. Most are already holding down one or more paid jobs while studying, and should gain credit for their work outside the classroom where it adds to their independence and employability.

What's a university to do? We have to prove our value in a crowded and competitive market. Value starts with staff and buildings but extends to alumni and other networks. What have former graduates gone on to do? What do they say about the course? What do employers think of our graduates?

There's more to education than money and more to degrees than careers. But we can't ignore the cost-benefit analysis that young people and their parents will be conducting.

I anticipate a shift from 'full-time' education of 18 to 21 year olds towards different patterns of adult education, workplace learning and continuous professional development. None of this is new, but there will be renewed impetus from 2012. University buildings will need to be occupied for more than half a day for half the week and half the year.

I also anticipate a shift in emphasis from producing employable graduates to developing entrepreneurial young people. This is exciting – but very problematic for business schools. Would an entrepreneurial young person be better advised to invest £50,000 in their business or in their education (an approximate cost of tuition fees plus living expenses over a degree course)? It depends…

A suitable candidate for company graduate schemes is likely to be a conventional team player. The successful  entrepreneur is likely to be a stubborn, thick-skinned individualist. Which personality type suits the classroom better?

Then there's a cultural problem. Mass higher education has worked hard to reduce failure and so operates in a fail-safe culture. Innovation requires lots of experimentation – including much failure. Since failure is the necessary flip side of success, we will need to learn to embrace it. Risk will need to be taught as a good thing, not as a problem as now.

Trouble ahead? If I think as an entrepreneur, I see plenty of opportunity in education. In the meantime, we're celebrating another batch of graduates next week.

Photo by digitalkatie on Flickr (Creative Commons)

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