07/11/2011 05:52 GMT | Updated 28/12/2011 05:12 GMT

'Transferable skills' - the Euphemistic Lie

If you go to a few graduate recruitment events in one evening, you can eat enough food from the complementary buffets to avoid having to cook dinner.

Or so I've been told.

Graduate recruitment is a big industry, as evinced by recruiter's apparent willingness to throw cash at students who come along to their corporate events just to take advantage of the free wine.

It is at this point in the year when some of the largest companies in the UK mobilise in force to cherry pick the brightest young minds from our universities. And with it, university careers services spring into action.

Perhaps the biggest lie we're fed by our careers service is 'transferable skills'. I don't particularly know what it means. 'Transferable skills'. It sounds mysterious - perhaps intentionally. But it runs off the tongue in a neat and authoritative way, so it must be true. Right?

We might pause to ask what is actually means. It seems to euphemistically obscure an implicit message - that the "skills" learnt during our university studies are not directly applicable to "real life". Or at least, it takes a certain manoeuvre to make them relevant.

I study English, a subject with an identity crisis when it comes to graduate employment. The careers section of my faculty website, as with almost all subjects, parrots the same old fluffy advice.

But a circulatory logic seems to inform this platitude, and others like it.

It's somewhat of an assumption that recruiters require our 'transferable skills'. Indeed there lacks any clear consensus that recruiters want a university education at all. Many top companies have been recruiting directly from school, where the transferable skills lie is still inchoate.

So where does this lie originate?

Figures released by UCAS last week and reported in Times Higher Education revealed that universities have experienced a 9% drop in applications this year. Commentators attributed this drop to the imposing threat of higher tuition fees, though David Willets, the universities minister, quickly quashed these claims saying "A degree remains a good investment and is one of the best pathways to achieving a good job and a rewarding career."

His rhetoric betrays an ideology that underpins the way the current government (and previous governments) conceive higher education.

Like 'transferable skills', claiming that education is an 'investment' immediately strips it of its inherent value. Indeed the relevance (or for Willets, the economic reward) of an education is not imminent to the education itself. Relevance must be 'transferred'. For Willets, a degree has no value itself beyond its symbolic value to recruiters.

We are still working within a regimented (and Victorian) model of education, where hard work is ultimately rewarded by a paid job. Because of this, universities must act as if that their function is consistent with this model, by pretending that all the valuable lessons and ways of thinking we develop are transferable - applicable to "real life" situations.

The dichotomy is a false one, and does a huge injustice to the value of learning.

Ultimately the platitudes surrounding 'transferable skills' point to a larger problem: the more we view education as an investment, the more inclined we are to think of it as part of an economic system. Indeed the commodification of education threatens the very principles on which it should be grounded.

The way we talk about education needs to change, especially in the wake of cuts and the increase to tuition fees. This move needs to be made both by universities and recruiters. Above all we need to dispense with the notion of education as investment; free thinking as 'skills' that realise their potential only when they are 'transferred'.

Education is valuable in and of itself. And in an age where we put ourselves in over £18,000 worth of debt to receive it, that needs to be respected.