WE HAVE EVERY right to be angry with the many institutions that seem to be taking advantage of us all. Banks, insurance companies and real estate agencies to name but a few are well-known culprits, but nobody appears to be protesting with the same vigor about the biggest scam of all that is going on right under our noses: the scam of third level education.
As CAO offers come out, older generations will no doubt be lauding the system that has given young people so many choices as to where they go with their futures, but with greater choice comes greater potential for regret leading to higher levels of stress and pressure on the shoulders of young people who are already over-stressed.
The commitment of time alone that is necessary to get through modern education is enough to make any young person’s hairline retreat.
Degrees have lost all value
Long gone are the days when a Leaving Cert or even a Junior Cert could be deemed sufficient qualifications to acquire a decent job. In many cases, due to what is being termed “academic inflation” not even a degree is enough. We have reached a situation where so many level-eight degrees are being handed out every year that they have lost value.
This has led to postgraduate degrees becoming the minimum requirement for positions that undergraduate degrees would have been good enough for ten years ago. Students who undergo Masters and subsequently PhD studies after an undergraduate degree will typically spend nine years in third level education.
Who wins out of this? The third level institutions of course who charge as much, if not more for students to partake in graduate studies, while the teaching hours and resources that are provided to these students are much less than those of undergraduate courses.
How are they getting away with this?
Yes, we offer free education to many students, and no we don’t charge as much as American universities, but people are paying for this education and it is often those who reap no benefits from the system who pay the most.
Vast sums of public money are going towards third level institutions (€1.5 billion annually) and after the Public Account Committee in July likening some colleges approach to financial dealings the “wild west”, it doesn’t appear that the money is in safe hands.
With tuition fees averaging €7000 a year on top of living costs, extortionate rent prices and booze-fuelled social lives, students are forced to work weekends, evenings and holidays, contributing to one of the most commonly cited reasons for dropping out: pressure from part-time work.
That is only the beginning of the scam
After taking so much of our young people’s time and money, it would seem reasonable that these young people would benefit from this investment by finding themselves in positions of employment after graduating. The reality is that this is impossible, there are nowhere near as many new jobs offered in the country every year as there are degrees handed out.
According to the recent census, there are currently 180,076 full-time students in third level education, the economy is growing, but not growing nearly enough to provide jobs for all of these students along with all of those currently on the live register (276, 892).
According to the Higher Education Authority, only 62% of the students who graduated with honors bachelors degrees in 2015 had jobs by the following spring. This is up from the 45% of the devastating year that was 2009, but is still inequitable.
So what do these graduates do when they find themselves outside the college gate, degree in hand, facing the reality that they are unemployable? They have two options: the dole or the airport.
Of course they have no regrets, those college years were the best of their lives: they got to move away from home, have freedom, open their minds, take drugs for the first time, have sex for the first time, learn to cook, learn to write, learn to argue, learn to borrow money, learn to manage their debt, learn to be part of a society that rejects their qualification as not worth the fancy paper it is written on.
So why bother?
What’s the point in going to university at all if it leaves graduates stranded? Well, they aren’t really given a choice. Their parents probably wanted a better life for their children than their own and this provides a symbolic form of offering them opportunities that were denied them.
So at the age of seventeen they are presented with a list of hundreds of courses to choose from, everything from basket-weaving to law, and they have to choose courses that will determine the rest of their lives, cost them a fortune, a decade of study and turn them into a person with the same skills as a whole cohort of other graduates.
They do it because they don’t have a choice, because everyone else is doing it and because their parents make them. Compounding the difficulty of the decision is the reality that the job market will have changed dramatically by the time they graduate.
In 2008, it would have seemed to be a wise decision to enroll in a course in construction management with the construction industry booming and salaries going through the roof. But by the time they graduated the industry had crashed and all their degree would have got them was a flight to Australia. Who is to say that something similar might not happen in other booming sectors like technology and renewable energy?
But do the students care? Sure aren’t they having great craic?
We are teaching too many students to do jobs that our society doesn’t need at a huge cost to both the students and our society. In the coming weeks, students all over the country will be choosing the courses that they have been accepted for through the CAO.
Of these 76,086 students, 14,459 have chosen Arts or Social Sciences as their first preference according to CAO statistics, making it by far the highest first preference field applied for.
Arts courses get a lot of abuse for being the path people choose when they don’t know which to path choose. There is definitely a place for these subjects and many graduates of Arts courses go on to great things, but the reality is that in 2016 study by the Higher Education Authority found that more than one third of Arts and Humanities graduates said that their education was irrelevant/most irrelevant to their employment.
It should be no surprise then that Arts and Humanities graduates are also statistically the least well paid after graduation with 21% of last year’s graduates on less than €13,000. It might be of some solace to these students to know that it actually doesn’t even matter so much what course you apply for, because, according to careeerportal.ie, “60% of graduate opportunities are open to graduates from any field”, so what the hell were they studying specific subjects for then?
Our third level education system is hugely wasteful
We create too many graduates who are destined to drain from society rather than contribute to it, through no fault of their own, making them despondent and resentful towards a system that has let them down.
There is a simple solution that could reduce this waste significantly. Most companies that recruit recent graduates state that they invest substantially in training them in. It makes sense then that the government should invest in subsidising the training that companies give new employees rather than investing in years of useless education.
A percentage of new employees’ tax could cover this, while companies become more efficient and potential employees don’t waste years in third level, learning facts that they are forced to forget once they (if they are lucky) enter the workforce. This would lengthen the average amount of working years of the country’s workforce by harnessing youthful years rather than raising the national retirement age, as has been suggested recently in the Dáil.
We need companies to be recruiting our secondary school students, not universities, young people need to be aware of the jobs that exist, not the courses. We need employers rather than academics training young people to work. Irish people are known for being hardworking, but if the work isn’t there, we lose our skilled youth to foreign countries, who take advantage of their education.
Chris Fitzgerald is a language teacher from Kerry who holds an MA in English Language Teaching and is a current PhD candidate. He has taught in Japanese universities for five years and is currently based in Galway, working in language education in an administrative capacity while writing on the side.