The Great Student Bubble: Is the University Degree Now a Worthless Asset?

10/07/2012 13:30 BST | Updated 08/09/2012 10:12 BST

With young people graduating all around the country Brian takes a hard look at the realities that confront the common graduate - a section of society under a looming demographic crisis.


Do you think that a university qualification has become a worthless asset? The answer, for me is: in the affirmative. But why you ask? Because, across the nation, graduates are flowing out of third level institutions at an astonishing rate and at a level of supply that far outstrips demand. The result of this phenomenon makes for a distorted and unbalanced social economy and demographic profile: graduates languish on the sides for months or years and suffer soft and hard skills atrophy, causing them to degenerate en masse into a proverbial white elephant - a roaring shame that blights our national landscape.

Fuelled by irrational exuberance and an erroneous faith in the power of a degree title, in a boom, graduates have piled their good money, time and resources into universities in such great volume, that the degree titles they now hold have become a devalued currency and a bust asset.

The pernicious faith that drove huge inflows of young people into university was and continues to be a dangerous herd activity that is readily analogous to the behaviour that inflated the property bubble prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Both the graduate and the property market were fuelled by erroneous perceptions that led to gross overvaluations, which in the end turned sour, leaving the participants with a worthless asset in hand, and negative equity overhead (the mammoth fees etc).

The story of the Great Housing Crash of the noughties is well known, however the great student bubble is less subtle and hidden beneath the public conscious. And whilst countless graduates have bought into the university faith in the same way others bought into the housing, graduates and society have yet to learn the lessons of this damaging mentality.

I have proposed the following recommendations to ward against the looming demographic crisis: firstly, instead of following the herd and operating in a mechanical way young people need to reinvent themselves; they must become market orientated and see human capital as a personal metric that must be constantly built. That means our young people must up-skill themselves and see this as a unending quest.

Secondly, there also must be a wider change in ingrained and damaging societal perceptions. Example in hand is the belief that university-goers have succeeded, whilst those who chose a trade or any non-degree related career have somewhat failed or failed to reach their potential.

Thirdly, the government talks about rebalancing and restructuring the economy, but equally important is restructuring and rebalancing our demos. We need to equip our economy with what it needs, not what we want: engineers, computer designers and innovators.

Fourthly, building on the need to prepare ourselves for what the market wants we must become more outward looking; orientating ourselves to growth markets and equipping ourselves appropriately. And by that I mean we must learn foreign languages and learn about other cultures, ways of life and historical perspectives.

Connected to that point we must become more flexible, responsive and less myopic, and become a people that looks to future trends and adapts appropriately. Gillian Tett hit on this perfectly in a recent FT article, here, when she asked whether European graduates should move to Brazil and other emerging economies were there is a great demand for young graduates. Canada is the same and is crying out for young skills tradesmen and women. These examples require the free movement of persons and capital and alludes to the classic market principle of efficient allocation of resources.

Thus not only must we prepare for want the market wants but we must go where the market wants; and in the mean time the market does not want us young people en masse to go to university.