Steven Schwartz had an interesting argument in the AFR today:
As degrees become more common, their filtering value decreases. When everyone has one, a bachelor’s degree will confer no social distinction at all. At that point, a new filter will become necessary. So get ready for a massive growth in master’s degrees. (Remember, you read it here first.)
It is not too late to reconsider whether another round of degree inflation is really what Australia needs. Some graduates (dentists, for example) leave university with employment skills. For the rest, most university education is not a good fit with the world of work. (Just ask employers.)
Higher education confers many valuable gifts. It broadens horizons, introduces students to new ideas and concepts, helps them to appreciate and respect scholarship and, when it works well, induces in students a love of learning. But higher education is not a useful ticket for employment. It does not reflect the possession of work-related skills and it does not guarantee graduates will make more money than plumbers.
I agree with almost everything he said in that op-ed.
But I did disagree with this (emphasis added):
If it is skills that matter, skin colour, sex, parental education or the prestige of one’s university should not affect a graduate’s job prospects or salary.
Yet, they clearly do. Employers prefer applicants from certain social groups and backgrounds. A university degree is another social distinction much like race or sex. It is not the skills learned at university that count; all that matters is that a job applicant has a degree (preferably from a prestigious university). In other words, higher education has become an expensive form of job filtering.
No, Steven no.
He is describing a signalling theory. Now employers don’t want, say, white people or males or females (as the case may be) per se. Employers want an employee who will do the job of work that needs doing. Signalling theory suggests that outside observers cannot identify the characteristic they desire with precision, so they chose characteristics that are highly correlated with the desired characteristic. So not some ‘social’ or class theory but imperfect correlation. Having parents who are professionals, or having gone to a prestigious university, for example, probably points to having a highly developed work ethic.