The Educational Arms Race

As we head into another year of hard work and hand over €2000 for our free education, Emer Sugrue asks, is building up huge debts while living off beans and vodka for four years really worth it?

What is a degree worth? I know that it is worth at least €2,333 to you this year. It’s probably worth a whole lot more. How high would the fees have to go before you would refuse to pay them? We may find out next year.

But giros aside, what is it really worth? You know what you are putting in; money, work and several years of your life, so you should know what you are hoping to get back for it. If you were to think like a banker and evaluate your investment (ok, well, not one of our bankers obviously, but a good banker, a banker who is good at his job and shouldn’t be in prison), you should be able to figure out what your returns will be.

The answer may depress you.

The number of people going on to third level education has risen steadily throughout your lifetime. Third level student numbers increased by 105 per cent between 1990 and 2004, reaching 55 per cent of school leavers by 2005, and rising an average 1 per cent per year since. The number of young adults aged 25 to 34 (the age at which there is most competition in launching a career) who have degrees is 41.6 per cent, far ahead of the EU average of 29.1 per cent. The Irish workforce has never been more educated.

The problem is that while education for it’s own sake is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t actually benefit you, apart from on a sort of intangible spiritual level. Getting a degree has never been more costly while providing fewer advantages. Once, any degree pushed you ahead of the crowd; now it just brings you up to average. Each extra degree there is in the country makes yours less valuable. We are more educated but there aren’t more jobs. This is educational inflation at its worst. Degrees, like everything in the world, have their value measured by rarity. Gold isn’t valuable because it’s useful, it’s because there’s not much of it about.

Now that third level education, at 60 per cent of the young population, has become the norm, the de facto minimum school-leaving age has been pushed forward into our mid-twenties. Twenty years ago a young person could finish their free education, Leaving Cert results in hand, and get a decent starter job in an office. Sure, it wouldn’t be glamorous, and they’d spend the first couple of years filing and getting coffee, but they had a wage and independence and they worked their way up.

Now a school leaver must first shell out thousands of Euro to spend three wage-less years getting a completely irrelevant degree to get the same job, probably having spent three summers working in offices for free to build up their CV. Followed by a few of years of filing, getting coffee and working their way up.  An Arts degree is becoming something you do on the side while building up your portfolio. A hobby, a crèche for young adults.

These days a degree is worth precisely sod all (I calculated) in terms of job advantages, but this isn’t to say it’s not worth getting; in fact it’s the opposite. You need it now more then ever. You need it just to keep up. It may not be an advantage to have one, but it is most certainly a disadvantage not to. The jobs available to school leavers are scarce, and need impossible amounts of work experience. They’ll find themselves under-qualified for dish washing and shelf stacking, but don’t worry, I hear they offer unpaid internships for that.

A rising tide raises all boats, and it has left us in the same position but drowning in debt. Educational inflation is nothing new; once upon a time the majority left education at fifteen to start work, and the change has been nothing but positive. The big difference is, secondary education is free. There are expenses such as books and uniforms of course, but nothing like the fees we are obliged to pay for college. Ireland has ended up in the worst of both worlds, we have fees while pretending we don’t.

The only option for someone to compete in the jobs market is to get even more degrees. More than ever before there are students going on to do Masters degrees, unemployed people going back to college to retrain, managers using their work experience as prior learning to get fast-tracked into business, management or even science degrees. When everyone else has a degree, what can you do?

The educational arms race is in full swing.