Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Has Blue Peter made children out of us?

In a restaurant last night somebody pointed out Biddy Baxter, former doyenne of Blue Peter. Earlier in the day the historian Peter Hennessy had been presumably making mischief when he said on Start The Week that he believed that many of New Labour's failings could be traced back to Blue Peter. "It produced a political generation who believed they could collect the bottle tops, do AIDS next week and then solve world poverty. It was absolutely toe curling."

Certainly we have a political class who believe that once you do something that thing is done. Some of the things they do have that bright-eyed "new beginning" feeling of a Blue Peter campaign. The difference is that while all Blue Peter is trying to do is build an orphanage, they're trying to bring about changes in behaviour. Initiatives are announced, budgets assigned, progress reported and then there's a long silence. Only when the people who began the initiative have moved on does somebody emerge to admit that while they took all the action they intended to take it hasn't quite produced the results they intended. There was an item saying just that yesterday about government's campaign on childhood obesity. Seems you can't make people act in their own interests if they don't want to.

It's only when a campaign has hit the wall that people are prepared to concede that expectations might have been unrealistic. In recent years questioning the steady extension of university education has been like arguing for a better deal for witches in Salem. Now that the big story is 69 people chasing every graduate job Martin Birchall of graduate recruitment firm High Fliers is on the radio pointing out that nobody asked industry whether they needed this number of graduates. Seems obvious now, doesn't it?

Of course I don't blame the politicians. They're only trying to do what they think will play with us and we're addicted to good feelings particularly when they can be achieved without any apparent sacrifice on our part. Would we like to solve world hunger? Yes! Would we like to get those people across the road to behave better? Of course we would. Do we want all our children to go to university? You bet we do. Have we thought about the consequences of some of this? Not a lot.


  1. I always been a bit confused as to what being a 'graduate' qualifies you to do. It always seems to mean you're going into some sort of middle management but shouldn't it just be that you've graduated from whatever course you were doing?

    If it does mean a management job then shouldn't we be looking to lower the amount of 'graduates' overall? After all, the less of those buggers there are, the better, surely?

  2. On the subject of graduates, in the company I work we have a graduate training scheme, one that enables any one of them to work anywhere they like within the company. 99% of them seem to expect to go the fast track route into management.

    So what you end up with is a top heavy company, with no experience of the industry they're working in, and a shortage of people willing to learn the real work that our company does.

    "management" where our grads are concerned seems to be similar to "famous" these days. Everyone wants it,and more to the point thinks it should be theirs.

    Meanwhile the people who have worked in the industry for years find there are no jobs higher up for them to aim for. And also find that they are working for a manager who isn't old enough to remember Britpop!

  3. But even the terms of this debate have changed since I was a student in the late 80s. The idea that you went to university primarily to gain a qualification that would subsequently help you find a job would not have found much support in my peer group.

    Maybe that was something to do with studying history - never the most vocational of subjects.

    But I would say the motivations for going to university were, in rough order of priority:

    1. It was just what you did (especially if, like me, you were the victim of a private education).

    2. The prospect (though sadly not always the reality) of sex and drugs and rock n roll.

    3. The avoidance of having to get a proper job.

    4. The avoidance of having to grow up.

    5. To get a degree for future employment opportunities.

    6. A genuine desire to continue to study.

    This order certainly changed during the course of 3 years at university (point 6 went much higher; point 2 sadly declined).

    I wonder how different things are today?

  4. @ Steve Lake, I'm afraid that in listing eight reasons for univrsity, you missed out two which to me semed the most crucial:

    1. Becoming independent, a stepping stone between school and life where one fended for oneself socially and financially but with the safety net of parents when it went wrong; and

    2. Finding out how to work, how to meet deadlines, how to research and assemble material and achieve an objective, all on one's own and without the kind of teacher who had been around for the previous 13 years.

    Seems to me those were two of the most valuable things a university education provided?

  5. I'm sure you're right Gerontius, but I have to say neither particularly applied in my case. I was (am) the product of that peculiar kind of English boarding school that tends to address your two points at a very early age - for better or worse.

    In effect going to university was exactly like being in the 6th form at school, only without any rules. That seemed like a very good thing at the time and persuaded me it would be a sound idea not to cut my hair for 3 years with distressing 'white afro' results.

    We certainly had to fend for ourselves socially at school and, to an extent, financially. And the teaching at A-level was of a very similar nature to what I later experienced at university.

    I'm not sure whether any of this was particularly beneficial. But university as an extension of boarding school is key to the idea that people attend the latter to avoid growing up. And I know plenty of people who trod that same path who still haven't grown up in any meaningful way. Whether I'm one of them I'll leave to other people to decide...

  6. By the way David....any comment on 6Music's apparent salvation? I seem to recall a certain scepticism at Hepworth Towers about the camapign to save it.

  7. The increase in graduates has been a disaster.

    It was sold along the lines of Britain needing lots of skills, get more people into graduate education and you'll get lots more of those skills and everyone will get richer.

    The actual result is that very few of those extra graduates were in the places with skills shortages (like medicine, engineering) and instead became just a marker of someone's skill and effort.

    The result is that more people have degrees, so employers just raise the marker to weed out people. The employer doesn't actually get a more skilled person - they got the same person as before.

    Unfortunately, the people taking the degrees are the ones getting screwed. They've been promised this as a route to prosperity only to find that the grade inflation has lowered the value of the degree and they spent a load of time and money doing it.

  8. @Simon - I work in the civil service where we also have a 'fast stream' scheme that allows graduates to come directly in at a management grade with the aim of being a Grade 7 Team Leader within 3 years. All of the graduates I have worked with (three in the last 2 years) have been very bright and capable as you might expect. However, the system lets them down by making it difficult for them to gain genuine people management experience / skills. The result is that we end up with a layer of senior managers who don't know the basics about working with and managing people. And then people wonder why civil service sick absence rates are so high.