Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Lessons to learn

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

Like most Erasmus Students bloggers, I study languages at university. I am lucky enough to love the subject I study, and that my degree in Modern and Medieval Languages will afford me the opportunity to pursue a wide range of careers in the future.

In Germany, however, it’s another story. I am currently undertaking an internship at a bank, and my colleagues struggle to comprehend that I am not pursuing a finance- or business-related degree. When I tell people here that I study languages, the reply is almost always: “So you want to be a teacher?” In Germany, the progression from further education to professional career is strictly rational and far less flexible than the British model. If you want to become a lawyer, you study Law. If you want to be a banker, you study Finance. It’s a system which makes a lot of sense, and provides a highly-qualified, specialised professional workforce.

But it’s also a system which fails its students, in that it locks them into a career path from an early age and offers little room for change. Young people are fickle beings, and when I look at my peers, who have studied subjects such as History, Social Anthropology, Chemical Engineering and Music at university, I see a diverse range of talents and skills. What I don’t see, though, is a group of people with clear ideas regarding the sorts of careers they wish to pursue and what plans they have for the future.

The cynics of our parents’ generation would argue that Britain’s youth unemployment problems stem from this system, which allows students to defer making crucial decisions such as what we actually want to do with our lives until we leave university. I see it differently though. At the bank where I work, my arts degree places me in the rare minority. Unlike my colleagues, I cannot price an option and I find Excel formulas incomprehensible. But I can offer a different perspective on problems, and empathise with clients who also struggle to get to grips with exotic derivatives or currency swaps. A workforce of people with the same educational background may well be highly-skilled, but lacks diversity. And it’s precisely a lack of diversity which can cause us some serious problems – without wishing to recycle a much-used argument, just look at what happened in 2008…

But why, if the German system possesses this flaw, is the nation continuing to thrive economically? Why am I advocating the British higher education system when our nation is grappling increasing youth unemployment, whereas Germany is concerned that it will not meet demands for a highly-qualified workforce in the future?
The answer is that neither system is perfect, and both would do well to learn lessons from the other. So far I’ve focused on the lessons I think the German system could learn from the British system regarding higher education for students who wish to pursue professional careers. On the vocational end of the scale, however, Germany is streets ahead of Britain. The backbone of the German economy is its extensive network of medium-sized businesses, which rely on a skilled labour force for their success. Unlike in Britain, however, many of these workers did not go to university, but instead attended secondary schools which promoted vocational expertise, which lead to profitable apprenticeships where they developed skills useful for both themselves and their employers.

There are a number of differences between this system and the current state of affairs in Britain. Firstly, there’s no stigma attached to pursuing a vocational course rather than going to university in Germany. In fact, the skills of these vocational workers are valued for their economic importance to the nation just as highly as those of university-educated professionals. By contrast, we Britons, encouraged by Tony Blair to send 50% of young people to university, face a proliferation of pointless higher education courses which have not only lessened the value of a university degree but also failed those students who should never have gone to university in the first place, but could have thrived in vocational opportunities.

Secondly, you don’t see nearly as many headlines here protesting indignantly that ‘Poles have taken our jobs’, and there’s a simple explanation for this: there is a good supply of Germans who are suitably qualified for the roles, which are in turn not viewed with the sense of failure or undesirability that we attach to them in Britain. By building a system in which all students were encouraged to strive towards academic excellence, we made careers in areas such as construction and hospitality appear second-rate and unattractive. Which, when you consider how crucial such jobs are not only to our daily existence, but also to our now sluggish economy, was a grave mistake.
So where do we stand now? Neither system has got it quite right, but we ought to be proud of our respective successes and be more prepared to make changes based on those areas where the other nation flourishes. The more uniform German professional world would do well to embrace some of the diversity – and, dare I say it, eccentricity – of the British higher education system, whilst Britain should take a leaf out of Germany’s book when it comes to valuing the benefits that apprenticeships can bring.

As for me, I’m counting my blessings that a Year Abroad has allowed me to take advantage of both systems. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have been fortunate enough to spend my time at university doing what I love – reading books, writing about poetry and analysing plays – and have still been able to get a job at a respected financial institution. I appreciate that I have been very lucky. But if we embrace the advantages of both systems, far more of us will be able share my luck: young people, citizens, and ultimately our economy.

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