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Education, education, education!

Kirstie Allsopp’s misguided advice to girls to ditch the degree

You may have noticed something of a storm in a media-stirred teacup recently. Kirstie Allsopp, the well-known presenter of Location, Location, Location and various programmes about domestic arts and crafts, has waded into the work versus motherhood debate. Specifically, she has suggested young women ditch the degree – usually completed in their early twenties – and focus on getting a job, a house, a man and a baby. University can come later, she says, offering advice to her (imaginary) daughter:

“Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27… You can do your career afterwards… Don’t go to university because it’s an ‘experience’. No, it’s where you’re supposed to learn something! Do it when you’re 50!”

Allsopp claims she made her remarks to ensure young women don’t reach the ‘fertility cliff edge’, where go-getting women are so focused on getting ahead professionally they forget to have a baby until it’s too late. As if any woman with a pulse and the ability to read could forget such a ‘fact’. It is stock-in-trade for women’s magazines and the lifestyle sections in the weekend papers. Allsopp’s wish to start a debate on the decline in fertility from the mid-30s is well and truly on the pages of glossies and broadsheets, and certainly on the minds of many single 30-somethings!

Nonetheless, her comments on the role of higher education in women’s careers – and university as a default assumption – are worth examining. In an era where the new normal seems to be grindingly high levels of graduate unemployment or, at best, under employment, does Allsopp have a point? Should young women be encouraged to set forth at 18 to make their mark in the world of work, rather than work on end of term marks at universities?

To an extent, her suggestion of studying later in life seems rather late in the day. After much effort and encouragement, and in the space of barely two generations, women have risen to take 55% of places in higher education and are continuing to enroll in higher education even as their male counterparts’ numbers drop back. In some disciplines, including highly sought after professions such as law, women significantly outnumber men: nearly two thirds (63%) of students accepted onto university law degree courses are young women.

At the same time, with the huge increase in the proportion of young people going on to university, something of a qualifications arms race can be seen in the dynamics of employment – especially graduate employment. When few went to university, having a Bachelor’s degree conferred high status, connections and entry to the upper echelons of the professions and the civil service. These days, having the right degree, with the right marks (a First please, or at a push a 2.1) from the right university, preferably with a Masters plus a healthy voluntary work CV and summer internships is the bare minimum.

This is brought out by research on the ‘graduate premium’ – the additional earning power that can be expected to flow from higher study to new graduates entering their professional working lives. The economic crisis, coupled with the increased supply of tertiary educated young people has eroded the premium for many areas, including social policy, civil engineering and law.

So should Sixth Formers heed Allsopp’s advice, and the emerging evidence that a degree is not necessarily a passport to well paid professional work? More than the potentially temporary, recession-induced downturn in graduate earnings, the flaw in Allsopp’s argument is her failure to suggest what alternative exists that will ensure bright, sparky young women are on track to – eventually – take up positions of power and influence. What career path exists for them outside the structured route through university? While she may have some kind of glittering entrepreneurial venture in mind for these young women, that is an uncertain option. In the UK’s economy, without higher education and post-compulsory qualifications, it is a harsh truth that unqualified work will usually be low skill, low pay and low security.

Beyond the economic impact of being an unqualified worker in a knowledge economy, women’s voices and presence in the corridors of power will be diminished even further if we encourage young women away from higher education. It is incredibly unlikely, in this era, to rise to a senior position of power and influence without a degree. A degree is the foundation on which entry to most graduate fasttrack schemes is based.  These are specifically designed to accelerate progress towards success and seniority in both the private sector and civil service. A degree is the entry criteria for the well-established and well-paying professions. To encourage young women away from higher education is to lock them out of many of the most lucrative and influential professions – and it’s not like women are hugely overrepresented in the upper tiers of management to begin with.

Allsopp is right to point to the need for a debate. But it is not a debate about fertility, it is a debate about the structure of the modern career and the role of formal qualifications within that to advance young women up the organisational tree towards greater success. Opening the range of post-school options for all young people to make an informed choice is certainly a good thing, but encouraging young women in particular away from the most secure route into professional, well paid and potentially influential work is a retrograde step.

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