Outside Higher Education: Business and English by Rick Rylance, CEO and Dean, SAS

Posted by boo11 at Mar 11, 2019 09:00 AM |
The Myth of the Great Unemployed and the Myth It Has Nothing to Do with Us


I want to call attention to two myths which concern the employment of English graduates. The first concerns their supposedly forlorn chances in the job market, the second concerns how we imagine our relations with wider society and the economy.

The idea that English graduates are derelicts in employment is annoyingly persistent. It’s also – like the benefits of Brexit – evidence-free. In fact, English graduates for the most part compete as equals when they seek employment and the percentage of those unemployed after one year is pretty much the same as, say, graduates in Business Studies. The real issue in UK education is the cliff-edge between those with degrees – whether in English or Engineering – and those who don’t. That, statistically, is the employment valley of death and it carries with it all the indicators: with a degree, you have better lifetime earnings, greater career satisfaction, more opportunities, a larger number of holidays, better health and greater freedom from crime, all of which are functions of relative affluence.

Part of the problem in this myth is the idea of vocationalism. In the familiar, narrow sense of study-this/get-a-job-in-that, few disciplines are vocational except for those relating to medicine (including nursing). Other subjects are not tied to specific outcomes. Some work Judy Simons and I did some years ago indicated, for instance, that only 3 of every 7 chemistry graduates have jobs involving chemistry, and more remarkably only 50% of surveying graduates become surveyors. Maybe you study English to become a teacher? Well, 16% do and 84% don’t. The truth is that most enter a general job pool and compete with their specific skills, aptitudes, experience, training and personalities. One question is: do we help them enough with this? But the harder question is how do we intervene in the myth of linearity, often believed by parents among others, that this leads to that, and that equals happiness. It carries little relationship to actual behaviours in modern employment markets, if it ever did.

A more useful and accurate trend to observe is the growing importance of post-bachelors degrees and experience. Postgraduate qualifications are increasingly correlated in the US and the UK with an earnings premium and better prospects, which is interesting and an important signal for future planning. Also striking is the increasing popularity of post-first degree qualifications such as law conversion courses. Does this say: get your education, then get your qualification? I’d be glad if it did.

In English, we should have a bit of a debate about vocationalism. In common usage, we tend to rather disapprove of vocationalism in the vulgar sense assumed above – unless, of course, students show vocational appetites for things we like, such becoming an academic. (I’ll come to some of the reasons for this below.) Linear vocationalism is silly but perhaps we need to be more generous and appreciative of the value of other modes of life.

Linear vocationalism is silly because it is untrue. But what attention do we pay to actual patterns of employment and how they are changing? Postgraduate behaviours are one instance (see above), but what of the way careers across the economy are becoming more discontinuous or ‘portfolio’ based? What implications might this have for us?

There is no area in which this is truer than the ‘creative economy’ in which a significant number of English graduates come to work and which is the fastest growing segment of the UK economy now. The Brighton Fuse, an AHRC-commissioned research project on the micro operations of the creative economy in Brighton (a national hot-spot), indicated that careers in this sector are highly mobile and differently constituted than the employment patterns of my generation. They are growing fastest at the interconnection between tech and humanistic knowledge and an impressive number of sector leaders originate from the humanities. Are we still too fixated on the heads-down, degree-to-profession model of old?

So, here’s the second myth. It is that the culture of English – or indeed Culture generally – is inimical to mainstream social and economic activity. In this we are still children of Arnold and Leavis and of the paralysing binary of culture-stuff here which is good, and money-stuff there which is bad. I discussed this in my book Literature and the Public Good (2017) and you see it in debates about intrinsic v. instrumental value, in-principle objections to ‘impact’, ideological opposition to undifferentiated ‘capitalism’, or the ‘cash nexus’, or just generally the way things are. You also see it in the inflated, self-justificatory value given to ‘critical thinking’ (whatever that is) and especially the offensive, exclusionary assumption that it is a perquisite of the humanities alone.

We are embedded in a society that supports us and sometimes cheeses us off. But the assumption – conscious and unconscious – that we are somehow in lofty isolation, or worse superiority, to the mucky business of the workaday world is not good enough.

One consequence may be to stumble passively into a predicament reinforced by stubborn inwardness. This may be related to our own customary academic career patterns of being smart at school, smart at university, and then smart in the same way for a living. Maybe we should be both less purist and less narrow: maybe we need to think of the world outside as an excellent adventure and intellectually as well as economically interesting, and not as debased.

Some consequences might include thinking about course structures to see what bridges can be built or opportunities seized. With respect to work placements for example, which are widely understood to be helpful to those looking to enter employment, do the excellent Collaborative Doctoral Awards pioneered by the AHRC offer a model we might consider in undergraduate education? How might we link teaching to the capabilities acquired by alumni who are often willing and generous? How might we incorporate new skills that extend capability? Speaking personally, I feel a nervous lack of, for example, quant or tech abilities or even awareness. A Changing Major, a recent report by the Association of Departments of English (ADE) in the US– where the undergraduate recruitment crisis appears grave – indicates that most English curricula are still dominated by the communication of literary history, and I would guess this to be the case in the UK too. I like to think of myself as a literary historian, but I wonder whether this really is the best structure for our enterprise now. Should we be reaching out to that world outside with more vigour? We may have nothing to lose but sagging morale and stay at home assumptions.

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