Fairy Tales of the Future – Educated for Unemployment

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A recent study shows that the reality that awaits business and management students after graduation day is quite another from the one they are taught at the universities. But the problem is not addressed by university staff, leaving the students in a limbo of debt, unemployment and insecurity.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Do you know your students? A question as simple as that challenged the academic minds of the participants at the workshop Humanities and Social Sciences in Management Education at Copenhagen Business School. The question was raised by Professor Bent Meier Sørensen and Dr. Martyna Sliwa when they gave a thought provoking presentation based on their (not yet published) study ‘The new spirit of the classroom: A quest for dissensus and equality’.

The “new spirit of capitalism” changed the demands for the world of labour and new qualities such as creativity, passion, talent, and uniqueness have replaced the old virtues of discipline, routines, and narrow specialties. This development forced business schools to reinvent the way they prepare students for the labour market by introducing humanities and social sciences to business management education, among other things.

But the student body changed as well. Globalisation and economic growth have resulted in a culturally diverse student body with an array of varying social and educational backgrounds over the years. When the economic growth came to a brutal halt by the latest financial crisis, the conditions and motivations for the students were changed. Their line of work was no longer just determined by their passion and possible self-realisation, but also by their need to pay the bills.

The study shows that caught between a rock and a hard place the students are forced to take out loans to further educate themselves in an attempt to get ahead in the race to land a steady job. According to Sørensen and Sliwa’s study, the universities assure the students that they will all have a job after graduation, but the unemployment rate tells a different story. Unaware of the predicament the students are in, the university teachers do not address the problem.

“When we read the empirical material more closely, the hopes, expectations and anxieties of the students were revealed. These things are not to be ignored, and we really need to be closer to our students,” says  Sliwa.

We sat down with her and her co-author Sørensen to talk about students in debt, diverse backgrounds and uncertain futures, and the universities telling tales and preparing the students for a professional life they cannot afford to live.

The study – a three layer cake

The empirical study is based on a particular module, Introduction to Management, taught in a Masters programme in Britain, where many of the students came from abroad. Using novels, the students were introduced to theories on management. The students had to choose a novel that they were familiar with and thought relevant for the course. Afterwards they had to write an essay using theories of organization and management. They also had to write a reflective piece about what they learned about management through the use of novels.

“This study was not designed to be an actual study, but when we read the essays we found the reflective comments were so interesting that we asked for permission to use it in a paper. This empirical material was background to what has now become two and half years of reflecting on our part,” says Sliwa.

The first paper focused on the cultural diversity of the classroom and the fact that students with different cultural backgrounds engaged in their novels in different ways. The second paper focused on the actual teaching.

“We as teachers assume that everybody read literary fiction, that everybody is familiar with certain novels and that everybody can make sense of their education through this kind of lectures. These assumptions are really rooted in a specific type of Western thinking and type of European education, where everyone goes to school and has a certain amount of novels to engage in. So the second paper was a critique of our teaching methods and the assumptions that we as teachers make in the classroom and how those assumptions play out in our interactions with the students,” Sørensen explains.

In the third paper the pair went beyond the classroom and the role of education by including external factors such as society, employment and labour market demands.

“The fact is that not every graduate is going to get a job, and not everybody is going to have a linear career. In fact, many of them won’t. So what are we preparing them for? It is nice to say that they learn to read novels and analyse texts, but what correspondence does it have with the world in which they will graduate?” Sliwa asks.

The unemployment lines are growing as there are not enough jobs for the graduates coming out of universities; Source: Camilla Falkenberg

The unemployment lines are growing as there are not enough jobs for the graduates coming out of universities; Source: Camilla Falkenberg

The loss of innocence

The results of the study show that the life of a student might be somewhat troubled. First and foremost, they have to navigate through the uncharted territory that is the landscape of post-financial crisis.

“The students are living their lives in a set of conditions which is unprecedented. In the crisis in the seventies the uplift from the crisis was nuclear-power; afterwards it was a new market that helped us through an oil crisis. Then finance saved us; first by the it-bubble and then with the housing-bubble. You would only loose one, maybe two generations. Today, even the most blinded neo-liberalist will be uncertain if we will be able to pull up a new bubble somehow. The growth machine that sufficed in the earlier crisis has been dismantled,” Sørensen explains.

In an attempt to secure their own future, students steer away from the liberal arts in favour of business and management education in the hopes of a higher chance of finding a job after graduation. But even though the students play their cards safe education still comes with a price and for that reason many students loan money to put them through university.

“Maybe a student has worked somewhere for 30 years and is now taking a masters degree to ensure a better future for herself. Or maybe a student has parents who have taken out a bank loan to put him through university. Their hope is to position themselves in their future working life in order to pay their parents back when they get employment, but at the same time build a livelihood for themselves,” Sliwa explains.

The students might have different backgrounds and reasons for studying, but they all have the same aim; to educate themselves in order to get a job, earn money, pay back their debt, and be able to live their lives.  But while the aim might be the same the time and effort the students put into their studies wary, depending on their age, their family situation, or social status.

“In a diverse classroom, there is a very different set of socioeconomic conditions depending on where you come from. It depends on your family situation, your social situation, if you have a job all ready to go to, a wealthy background and so on. This takes us back to a time in history, where there were no innocent children. Students are eighteen years old when they enter the universities in the United Kingdom. At that age they know perfectly well if they have to work part time to contribute to their lives. They make calculations to see if they can live on campus and have the full student experience, or if they have to stay at home to have less of a debt when they graduate. This reflectivity goes on even with people who are teenagers,” Sliwa explains.

The students educate themselves to secure their future not knowing what the next uplifting bubble is going to be. To play it safe they bet on management and business education, indebting themselves, their parents, or benefactors in the process. Therefore the concern for a future income becomes the primary concern, and this has an effect not only on the sentiments for studying but also on the university experience itself.

The business of universities and the fairy tales they sell

With the financial crisis came an increasing unemployment rate. And while the idea of growth has intertwined perfectly with the idea of knowledge production in earlier times of crisis, it might not be the saviour this time. The students get their degree, but the prospect of a steady full-time job after graduation day is a feebler one. Nonetheless, universities still produce a much larger amount of graduates than needed.

“In some sense you keep people off the streets by putting them in universities, but there is no idea what to do with these people after graduation. The state allows the universities to grow into this kind of market situation, where they can multiply the courses and the positions if they have students who are willing to study with them. It is in the interest of the universities to have as many students as possible, especially in those countries, where students pay fees. But there is no clear relationship between the number of graduates and the number of workplaces available to them. In the United Kingdom there are 83 applicants per job. That tells us something about the real situation between the number of graduates and the number of workplaces. But as long as the students are prepared to pay the money we will offer them the educational product, and we think that there is something quite wrong with that,” Sliwa points out.

And the discrepancy between the need to get a job, fulfilling the demand for creativeness and entrepreneurship and at the same time having the pressure of bank loans, cripples the real opportunities of combining business management with humanities and social sciences.

“If you have a debt, you pay rent to the financial institution for living your own life. That is the great problem in the junction between the employability discourse and the unemployment rate. The idea that academics should be creative, get new ideas, go new places, that’s fine. But the thing is that once you have debt, you do not experiment. You stick with what you have. So the idea that a degree in creativeness or entrepreneurship makes us more creative actually has the opposite effect,” Sørensen explains.

The university teachers are pointed out as central characters in preparing the students for the reality of their professional lives, but according to the authors the teachers are unaware of the situation the students are in.

“We try to stipulate a critique of the creative management education theorizing that it does not allow for some of the most pertinent societal problems to be addressed, like unemployment. It is easy for an educator to assume that because you are in the classroom you want a good education, good marks, and a good degree, because then you get a good resume so you can get a job. But when we look closely at it, not everybody comes with the same expectations, or have the same end point,” says Sliwa.

To exemplify their points the pair created characters that represented students from China, Britain, Southern Europe, Scandinavia and so on.

And the study shows that there might be a world of difference for the educational need of a 20 year old Chinese student, funded by his parents, under high pressure to succeed, requesting practical education in a Chinese context, and that of a British student with twenty years of working experience seeking for additional qualifications.

Especially the worries of a Southern European student show the diversity of the situation the students may find themselves in:

“I do not think I will be able to pay back the debts I owe for my education. Sometimes I think that when I die I will still have monthly payments to make for university. I currently have a repayment plan spread over 27 and a half year, but that is too ambitious since the interest is variable and I am only able to pay it back at a certain rate. I am very careful with my spending; I note any expense, from coffee to a bus ticket […]. Everything has to be planned […]. The thing that worries me the most is that I am incapable of saving, and my debt is always there looming over me.”

The importance and responsibility of the teachers knowing the reality their students live in and guide them not just through university but also to a better start in their post-graduation life is a crucial fact according to the study.

“There are countries in Europe, where 50 percent of young graduates cannot get jobs. We cannot go about our lives as academics, saying that we have no responsibility towards those people. We are telling them fairy tales saying that they will all become managers.  All of these ideas are not rooted in our paper, but we are trying to at least start the discussion of who are these people? What are the conditions of the labour market and society? What are our responsibilities? What can we prepare them for and what should we not tell them all together,” Sliwa adds.

 Making universities operate like businesses can turn students into paying customers; Source: Michael Fleshman / Flickr under Creative Commons

Making universities operate like businesses can turn students into paying customers; Source: Michael Fleshman / Flickr under Creative Commons

A return to days of yonder

The implications of the troubled world students are facing are yet to be wholly discovered. But already now trends and tendencies are revealing themselves and they show a regression to the ways of older days where name mattered more than merit.

“Part of the neoliberal discourse is that you, as an entrepreneur, are different from other people. It is a fantasy because people are more or less identical when they graduate from university. You may be individualized before university, but you come out the same as all the others. It is like going to Harvard. It does not matter what your grades or college degree is because everybody who are admitted to Harvard have excellent numbers on their degree. But that is part of the institution that they teach you the methods to do a certain job. This equalization creates rivalry, where the outcome comes down to your name and who you know. That is a return to a differentiated society, where there are certain narrow classes that are meant for manual labour, for academia, and for politics,” Sørensen says.

If every student graduates with the same qualifications other credentials matter in the search for a steady job and a steady income. Knowing the right people, having a certain social status or having a certain name might save the privileged students, but what happens to the graduates that do not have the luxury of knowing the right people or having a wealthy family?

Well it might just mean an increase of debt that just seems to spin deeper and deeper the further away you get from the university. It also means that a student trying to break with their social status might end up enforcing it by unemployment and debt.

“In the United Kingdom the first expectation when you graduate, is that you work for free and this can go on for a couple of years. This really means that only people from privileged background can go through that so-called period of internship which is really just exploitation. Even afterwards there is no guarantee, that the graduate will get that position, which is paramount for their payment. This leads us to a situation where it is almost nineteen century gentlemen, where the money was independent of what the actual occupation was. So if you do not come from a privileged background, where you have someone else who will sponsor your existence, then there is no way that you are going to survive,” Sliwa points out.

Striking a chord

After the presentation a sense of genuine surprise was present among the listeners. One of the participants Dr. Ellen O’Connor said: “I am just overwhelmed by the extremes here. I will be thinking about this for a long time. It is really provocative”.

Provocative or not, the results of the paper struck a chord and Sørensen and Sliwa hope that their presentation is the starting point of a concrete and important debate.

“The aim was not to provoke but we had a sense that the results was not going to be unimportant. I suppose that we were expecting that a few people might like it and a few people might feel slightly offended. So the fact that there was such a lively positive reaction and it seemed to resonate with so many people was great. Now we are actually starting to talk about education and humanities in a very different way. The universities as a collective body, is on its way in a deep crisis of which it is hard to see how they can get out. Right now we are returning to a situation where privilege matters more than any kind of qualifications,” says Sliwa.

“We are hoping that our results are something that is going to linger in the mind of the other workshop participants. That is definitely a great aspiration for is. We need to think and talk explicitly about these things. Because we see this as our responsibility both as academics but also as educators,” Sørensen concludes.


Featured image: Professor Bent Meier Sørensen and Dr. Martyna Sliwa; Source: Camilla Falkenberg

This post is produced in partnership with GRASP Magazine and Student Reporter and part of our joint project on Humanities and the Social Sciences in Management Education, specifically covering the Carnegie Roundtable Workshop at Copenhagen Business School. 

Guest writer Camilla Falkenberg from Copenhagen, Denmark is studying Master of Publication with a speciality in religious minorities at the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen. She is a writer for GRASP Magazine.

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