What does it mean for educators when large numbers of students are looking at a lifetime of low-wage jobs ? What does it mean for education? Professor Hugh Lauder explains

At a series of lectures around New Zealand you raised the spectre of a global economy awash with unemployed university graduates. What’s going on?

Some 50% of graduates in the US and the UK are now underemployed: that is they are not doing the work we used to expect of graduates. There will always be some demand for STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and maths) but it is too simple to say that if students nobly took the right subjects all will be well. I have just interviewed a group of MNC [multinational corporations] executives in Singapore and they all fear for the future of employment. One said he was relieved his daughter was studying theatre in Australia because robots can’t act!

Universities New Zealand has released analysis that shows graduates, including those with BAs, were financially better off over their lifetimes than people who didn’t have degrees. Yet you talk about the “cutprice knowledge workers” coming out of China, India, Russia and Bulgaria?

The report is misleading. It is talking about the past not the present or the future. By 2020, China will have 190 million graduates. But there is an important role for universities in the age we are entering and it is that role universities should be thinking through.

Knowledge work is being “stratified”, you say, meaning it is being broken down into “routinized tasks”, leaving only a few at the top “who have permission to think”. Will our students have permission to think?

Yes, but there won’t be that many with the chance to do that. What we need are people, including graduates, who can be creative, resilient an innovative. But how we teach for these qualities is a very difficult question. Are National Standards related to this trend of “routinizing” knowledge work? What is clear is that the repeated testing we have in the UK and US is totally counterproductive – it really is a training for routinised work.

Educators here are told that students need “21st century skills” for “jobs that don’t yet exist yet”. These skills include entrepreneurship, creativity and problem-solving. Will they help?

If we knew what these terms meant in more precise ways so that we could teach for these skills, then yes. There’s a lot of rhetoric about 21st century skills but very little work on how we can best teach them.

If there aren’t the jobs, is it reasonable for families and students to aspire to a tertiary education? What is the purpose of education?

In the age we are entering, education will become more not less important. We need people who are independent thinkers, and that is what education should be about. There is a strong relationship between education and other social goods, like citizenship and community involvement, and these will be even more important. There will still be a place for an education for the economy but paid employment will be much more uncertain. We need a new social contract between government and young people. In part this will mean the abolition of tertiary fees. In the UK the introduction of high fees has been self defeating. There just aren’t the jobs for graduates to enable them to pay back loans – to the point where the government might as well have kept the lower fees.

You’ve been quoted as saying the UK government needs to consider paying unemployed graduates a minimum wage so they can “innovate” rather than take dead end jobs. How would this work?

This is part of a new opportunity bargain or social contract. Everyone, not just unemployed graduates, will need a basic income or citizen’s wage. The alternative is that a few will have high paying jobs but the many will be on temporary low wage contracts, and many of them will come from middle class backgrounds, so there will be pressure on governments to think seriously about this. And we need “learning accounts” so that people can upskill. These are being piloted in Singapore. This is tough because what I am arguing for goes against the preconceptions of Kiwi culture. But if we don’t have this debate and think though the issues that we are now confronting, there will be major problems ahead.

Hugh Lauder is Professor of Education and Political Economy at Bath University, UK. He is a former Dean of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. He was hosted in New Zealand earlier this year by Massey University and The Policy Observatory at Auckland University of Technology.

Professor Lauder is co-author of The Global Auction – The Broken Promise of Education, Jobs and Education, Oxford University Press. A report on the privatisation of education by Professor John O’Neill will be available soon at ea.org.nz