Education is how countries catapult themselves out of one economic model and into another, as much as it helps individuals and families do the same. But high unemployment and underemployment rates of young people around the world - even as rates of participation in higher education rise to all-time highs - suggests that our higher education systems have become more problem than solution.
Chinese companies complain about the quality of the young workforce, and demand master's degrees as a hiring prerequisite. Japan's highly efficient express delivery services (their equivalent of UPS and FedEx, but better*) refuse to hire high school graduates because only university degree holders can read maps well enough to make deliveries. In America, this report argues that the unemployment rate for Americans aged 16-24 is the highest in six decades. Nearly one in five are out of work.
In all three countries, there is a great divergence between the fortunes of graduates from elite schools and (basically) everyone else that reflects a broader widening inequality discussed in pieces like this and this and this. People with brand-name degrees from the US ivies, Todai or Keio, Tsinghua or Beida don't have much trouble finding work. But for the vast majority of graduates, good jobs are increasingly hard to come by.
Why is this, and what are universities around the world missing?
This past week, there were a few disturbing signs coming out of the US. The state of Ohio is moving toward a three-year university system, in hopes of saving young people (and families) money and getting them out in the workforce sooner. But with so few good jobs for young people anyway (I'm not counting the 50,000 new McJobs that got so much press last week) maybe putting kids out on the street sooner isn't such a great idea. As we know, US multinationals aren't hiring at home; they're hiring overseas.
What, exactly, is broken in higher ed and what can be done to fix it?
The anonymous adjunct Professor X argued first in an Atlantic piece and more recently in a book called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower that sending fewer kids to college wouldn't be a bad idea.
Reform-minded Chinese professors argue that their education system should be more multidisciplinary and incorporate more innovation-related training.
Ironically, even as young American university graduates struggle to find jobs, Chinese students are climbing over each other to get to US schools. A Chinese friend with connections at a prominent Shanghai high school tells me a third of students are not taking the gaokao, the entrance exam for all Chinese universities, in hopes of heading to US universities. A Mexican friend working at a US multinational in China says that his company and others prefer to hire foreigners with US university degrees.
What this suggests is that US universities are not broken as brand-issuing institutions, and the farther you travel from America's shores, the higher the value of a US university degree. If you are an American-born-and-bred university student in the US, time abroad and fluency in the language of a BRIC country might now be essential. If you want to compete with the surge of people your age coming onto the global labor market, you have to meet them at least halfway.
The good news is that (unlike Japan, where the numbers of students going abroad has been falling for years) the number of Americans studying abroad has quadrupled over the last two decades, and China was among the top five destinations for US foreign exchange students. But still, only 80,000 American university students go abroad each year, the majority (56%) to Europe.
The less good news: the UK, Italy, Spain and France came before China (or any BRIC country) as destinations of choice.
I spent a summer during high school in France, where I studied the pleasure of chain-gobbling pain au chocolat on a balcony at mid-morning and drinking a gin and tonic at 5pm. These might be fun places to spend a semester, but they are unlikely to help students compete globally.
* By better, I mean: customers can drop off and pick up their express delivery parcels at any convenience store in Japan; Japanese express delivery services don't blink at taking your skis or snowobard from your hotel and delivering them to your door for very little money; refrigerated delivery services are so common and affordable that mothers use them to send meals to their children halfway across the country. Just better.
Photo of Harvey Mudd student council, 1960-61, courtesy of Claremont Colleges Photo Archive.