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University education: no longer elixir of life

It is almost every parent’s dream to see their children get a university education that will eventually open many doors for job opportunities that promise a life of prosperity. Families invest in their children’s education from very early in life by sending them to the best school, enrolling them for private tuition, and ensuring that they spend as much time on their studies as possible.

Now some social analysts are questioning the wisdom of pursuing a university education in the context of the changing dynamics of the world economy. Socio-economic research carried out in the US is sending an alarming signal to those politicians who are promoting university education as a means of satisfying the aspirations of their society.

Mark Perry, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, analysed the US Bureau of Labour Statistics’ official employment projections and published his comments in the journal of the American Enterprise Institute. His findings come as no surprise to many socio-economic observers in other Western countries including Malta.

Perry concluded that “many young graduates are in jobs where a degree is not necessary, a situation that is getting worse. The oversupply of graduates, especially from those institutions in the lower reaches of the league tables, and those with degrees in areas not directly relevant to firms has substantially distorted the market”.

This sobering reality has resulted in an inflation of job entry requirements with positions once open to plucky 16-year-olds “now requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s, even though the actual work hasn’t changed one jot”.

Perry’s comments get even more revealing: only five of the top 30 fastest-growing occupations expected to create the most jobs by 2020 require an undergraduate degree – nursing, teachers in higher education, primary school teachers, accountants and medical doctors – and 10 of the top 30 don’t require any kind of qualifications at all.

In the US, but possibly in most other Western countries, just one of the top nine occupations expected to create the most jobs this decade requires a university degree. Among the top 10 fastest-growing professions are retail sales staff; food preparation; customer service reps; labourers and freight, stock and material movers; lorry and van drivers and various healthcare aides, related to the ageing population.

Many countries are already experiencing the worrying phenomenon of young graduates who feel betrayed, with broken dreams, “graduates working in coffee shops, a business community that still cannot find the right people and the right soft skills and hard skills”.

Jobs requiring specialist qualification are not growing as much as the graduates’ population is

Of course, there will always be many jobs that require university degrees, especially those with quantitative and mathematical skills and it is important that children who have the aptitude to study for a degree should be encouraged and helped to do so. Regrettably jobs requiring specialist qualification are not growing as much as the graduates’ population is.

Countries like Britain are basing their economic strategy on attracting business that can offer more, better skilled jobs in the areas of technology, science, finance and high added-value business services to provide as many job opportunities to their highly qualified graduates. We have to compete with countries like Britain and Germany to attract direct investment in these sectors.

The role of investment promotion should be to project Malta as an ideal base for any company that wants to trade and export its goods or services through our island where they can find highly-qualified local staff that can help them do so. We are certainly doing the right thing when we offer low-tax incentives, reasonable living costs, a user- friendly business climate, and enhanced administrative infrastructure.

At the same time we need to focus on improving the knowledge of school-leavers, currently at depressingly inadequate levels. More importance also needs to be given to apprenticeships and vocational qualifications and the time may be right to reintroduce trade schools. Such a strategy will in the long run make much more sense than boosting university admissions at all cost.

A university education is no longer a passport to an elixir of life. The economic crisis that has hit countries like Ireland, Spain and now Cyprus has created another phenomenon: a lost generation of highly-qualified young workers who are rushing to leave their countries in search of better job prospects abroad.

The emigration of graduates with the more marketable qualifications and skills is nothing more than a brain drain that will delay the economic revival of countries in distress.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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