Not sure that this is a headline (see picture) that I want to read over my cornflakes. The reason? I took a difficult decision to put other career options on hold, at a dodgy (old) age I might add, and have piled pretty much all of my resources in to a year of postgraduate education. To then have such a credible publication as The Economist question the worth of that exercise is a bit unsettling, to put it mildly. What was I thinking? All that time, effort, money and no little stress for what? A worthless bit of paper at the end? Really?
Except that is not what they are saying. After composing myself I was able to read the whole thing and discovered that the report is far more wide ranging and interesting than the headline may suggest. That’s the joy of headlines people, even the stuffy old Economist isn’t above a bit of shock and awe to hook you in.
That is not to say there are not some areas of concern about the trends in higher education across the world. As students we are understandably less interested in that big picture than we are in the very small stick man sketch of our own futures and choices. The thing is to turn that stick man into something more recognisable as a person you sort of need to know what is going on in the wider world.
Let me explain. The global share of student-age population at university went up from 14% to 32% in the two decades to 2012. That is a huge leap in a short space of time. The number of countries with a ratio of over half of its student-age population at university is now 54. Two decades ago it was 5. Five!??! That tells you that the demand for degrees is growing at an amazing rate.
The Economist report is mainly concerned with the move from a European-style state-funded approach to university education to a North American more market-based approach that mixes private and public funding. It tries to assess the value that students receive for the fees, loans and debt involved in gaining that all-important qualification. If you are interested in that then I suggest you seek out the Economist’s work for yourself. It is worth reading.
My thoughts are, not surprisingly if you are a regular reader, more marketing related. If the world is going to university how will I stand out, in what must be by definition, a more competitive job market? Yes, there is the subject you choose, your actual desired career path, the quality of your final mark and the reputation of your chosen university but the fact remains more qualified people will be chasing the jobs that you want. In marketing terms, what is your differentiation strategy going to be? Why will someone buy you?
The idea of sustainable competitive advantage and differentiation is a marketing topic that is itself being questioned and re-evaluated. The market for higher education is just one example of a sector that is under massive change pressures – globalisation, intense competition, rapid technology growth and increasing customer (employer) demands for quality. If the new entry ticket for the job market is a degree, it all suggests that to get a better job your once sustainable advantage of a better education is not so sustainable after all.
One solution is to develop transient advantage. The key to a transient advantage is having a mindset that says ‘I know that this current advantage is temporary so I will need to add to it, change it, re-invent it or even ditch it altogether in the future’. You might find yourself having to make decisions about how you add to the skills and qualities that make you stand out – more education (this is me banging the drum for postgraduate courses), volunteering experience, working in other industries, taking professional qualifications or setting up your own business are all options. And here’s the rub: you will need to be doing these things continually throughout your working life. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
This situation will present quite a barrier for some people. As with all challenges in life you can either leave the situation as it is and resign yourself to your fate or you can get upstream of it and change the outcome. When two explorers disturb a hungry tiger in the jungle one immediately starts to change out of his boots and in to trainers. His colleague says you won’t be able to outrun a tiger in those. The other explorer, now legging it in his Reeboks, shouts back ‘I don’t need to outrun him, I just need to be quicker than you’.
Have a think about what transient advantage could mean for you, it might help you out run the employment tiger.