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23 October 2000

Britain’s brains go private

As graduate starting salaries soar past the £30,000 mark, Brian Schofieldfears that, in future, only

By Brian Schofield

I have an ugly past. A past littered with photocopied flyers and staple-gunned posters, punctuated with direct actions and protest marches, played to a constant, looping soundtrack of rabid, spittle-flecked chanting. Yes, I was a student radical. I fought long and hard for low rents, high subsidies, grants not loans, and education as “a right not a privilege”. The Daily Telegraph labelled me a Brideshead Bolshevik for my efforts, and I was proud.

Sadly, my present is uglier. Now a paid-up member of London’s young professionals’ club, I seem to socialise exclusively with management consultants, merchant bankers and City lawyers – the storm troopers of corporate Britain, ploughing a relentless path from a “good university” to a lucrative graduate job, then on to an obscenely lucrative job, a sporty two-seater, a nice little flat, a bit more money and, ultimately, a converted barn in Surrey and a heart attack.

This isn’t just about my choice of friends, whom I like very much, and who are not doing anything wrong. Making a pot of money is what clever, well-educated young people do in Britain these days. In the past, they might have become head teachers, officers, public servants, political and social leaders. Today, instead, our Bright Young Things are being acquired and hoarded by a narrow band of corporate interests, committed to an almost ludicrous bidding war for their talent. A starting salary of £36,000 as a strategic consultant, anyone? Or £40,000 to work for an American law firm in London?

Or you could join the public sector.

Not a chance – the commercialisation of cleverness is well under way. In a survey of finalists at the top 25 universities in the UK by the graduate recruitment company High Fliers, just under a third wanted a job in marketing or management consultancy. The fastest-growing areas for graduate ambitions were accountancy, investment banking and law. And the teaching profession, the single largest source of graduate vacancies by far, with up to 30,000 slots, came tenth in the list of preferences, just behind financial management.

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The overwhelming popularity of commerce for our top graduates is no surprise, as expectations of starting salaries escalate. The top 5 per cent of finalists feel they are worth in excess of £25,000 in their first year in work; while an amazing 11 per cent believe they will be “post-economic” by their 30th birthday – that means being so stinking rich you never have to work again.

It is good to have a dream.

Who are the employers feeding the dreams? They inhabit what is known as the “volume market” of graduate recruitment: they attract large numbers of bright “generalists”, good eggs with a high IQ, a full portfolio of personal attributes, but no particular vocational training. They are multinational giants, accountancy firms, banks, consultancies and law firms (who will pay for your legal training if you’re smart enough), and they are stuck in what McKinsey, the management consultancy, recently described as “a talent war”. Their business depends on a steady intake of intellect and youthful enthusiasm through their metallic revolving doors. The “Big Five” accountancy firms alone (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche, KPMG and Arthur Andersen) needed to find 3,750 bright cookies to fill this year’s vacancies.

Recruitment marketing is aggressive, with advertising and events designed to convince students that their only measure of personal value is a glistening, pin-striped career: “Join us. Together we can change the world” (Pricewaterhouse-Coopers); “Wanted: minds. Wide open” (Goldman Sachs); “Learn. Stretch. Grow” (Arthur Andersen).

Martin Birchall, head of High Fliers, watches the yearly frenzy: “Andersen Consulting threw 650 recruitment events last year at the top 25 universities, from briefings to parties, and even toured campuses with a 38-tonne truck offering students the ‘AC Experience’.” And now AC is fighting dirty, announcing that next year’s graduate intake will receive a basic salary of £28,000, plus a £6,000 “golden hello” the day they sign up, and a £4,000 “golden hello again!” for lasting a year.

How can our best and brightest resist? It’s even harder for the supposed “creme de la creme” at Oxbridge. Birchall observes the perpetual careers fair that has overwhelmed the dreaming spires: “Oxbridge is swamped with overzealous graduate recruiters, advertising meetings, putting up posters and fliers.” The choice is huge, the variety less so. Birchall estimates that around one in three of the recruiters visiting Oxbridge this autumn will be either a bank or a consultancy.

And the marketing works. Of those graduates who take a job straight after Oxford, one in four becomes a consultant, banker or accountant in the City. Many more will join them after they’ve finished travelling, loafing or failing to write a novel. A legal training brings a world of opportunity, they say, but almost two-thirds of ex-Oxbridge lawyers choose to work for just ten law firms – all in the City. I recently asked a friend if his Oxbridge law tutor had ever suggested using his education to work for, say, human rights or civil liberties? “It never cropped up.”

Finally, you may remember PPE, politics, philosophy and economics, the elite Oxford course renowned for producing political leaders, policy wonks and Sir Humphreys by the truckload. Well, no longer. Around one in three PPE graduates headed straight for the City last year.

Basically, our educational elite is being privatised. And, as with all other privatisations, the public sector ends up looking like the poor relative. The greater the choices open to a graduate, the less likely they are to go public. Last year, half as many Oxford graduates went into public service careers as those from Cardiff, a well-respected old university, but less admired by the talent-hoarders; 6.5 per cent of Cardiff leavers went on to teacher training, compared to less than 3 per cent from Oxford.

This privatisation has profound implications. While it has never been a source of national pride that an educationally lucky few have dominated our courtrooms, officers’ messes, corridors of power and the like, at least they were making themselves useful about the place.

Surely that is preferable to the centres of British privilege shifting to a few chrome-glass buildings on the banks of the Thames. The shift is already leaving casualties: by unofficial accounts, it is increasingly difficult to get anyone with half a brain to become an army officer. The Teacher Training Agency has been forced into a quiet recruitment revolution, offering its own golden hellos, training salaries and, in the face of union disquiet, a high-flyers’ fast track. Academia is suffering worst of all: Warwick University economics department recently announced that it could not attract any applicants with first-class degrees to be lecturers. At the time, Professor Andrew Oswald observed: “I do not see how it can be desirable to have students who are cleverer than lecturers.”

The second implication is more cultural – the gradual departure of our educational elite from the social fabric of Britain. David Blunkett recently waxed lyrical on the “social capital” of higher education: “Higher education bestows the cultural capital, values and knowledge that are increasingly important to active civic and democratic participation in the ethical and political debates that shape our lives.” I can offer only anecdotal evidence here, but I don’t know a single corporate storm trooper who participates in politics, community or national affairs.

Held in a bubble of work obsession, career competition and corporate loyalty, shielded from grim British reality by private healthcare plans, international assignments and company cars, their social disconnection is complete. And, as they disappear over the social horizon, we can expect political carping about inadequate public servants, inefficient academics and thick coppers to grow ever louder.

It is worth acknowledging that the brain drain to the commercial world is a rational response to insane generosity from employers. David Chamberlain at Oxford Careers agrees: “A lot of people say ‘blame the kids’, but I say that if we were in their shoes, we’d all be doing the same. Particularly when you consider the added pressure of debt.”

The National Union of Students estimates that the class of 2001, the first to face tuition fees for their entire degrees, will leave being, on average, £15,000 in the red. Graduate recruiters expect this to skew the market further in favour of high starting salaries, golden hellos and instant returns. But these levels of student indebtedness are the same for all graduates, regardless of where they got their degrees from, despite huge disparities in what those degrees are worth. Oxford graduates can expect to earn in excess of £2,000 more on average, for example, than those Cardiff graduates in their first year of work; this rises to a £10,000 gap within five years.

This dovetails worryingly with the arguments recently put forward by the Russell Group of “old” universities, in favour of giving universities the discretion to charge students differential top-up fees for courses. They pointed out that higher education remains overwhelmingly middle class in the UK; and that top-up fees could end the subsidisation of the wealthy and smart by ordinary taxpayers – and could fund the push for genuine working-class access.

If making the best universities more accessible by making them more expensive seems perverse, consider this life story: Charles is born to a comfortably-off family, and sent to the local Montessori school (fees, £4,000 a year), then packed off to boarding school (fees, £12,000 a year). At university, fees are just £1,050 a year; the remaining cost is met by the state (if he gets into Oxford, he gets 50 per cent more state subsidy, thanks to the college fee system). On graduating, his City employers pay off his student debts and give him more money than Ryan Giggs for the next ten years, until he finally goes post-economic.

Those Russell Group tutors have met Charles many, many times, and you can see what they’re thinking: smart people choose to privatise their lives before and after university, so let’s help them finish the job.

It seems that the most likely way to reverse the commercialisation of cleverness is to accept it. Accept that entire industries now depend on talent-hoarding and, for a certain section of our best and brightest, the gifts they offer prove irresistible. Letting our universities charge them a market rate for the privilege could, if the universities’ admissions policies are watched like hawks and enforced with vigour, fund a real programme of access to higher education for less privileged students: bursaries, scholarships, means-tested fee reductions and so on.

And, if you were really cunning, you could give public sector careers an incentive with cancellations of debts and repayments of fees for graduates who go public. If nothing happens, and the corporate monopoly on intelligence is allowed to take hold, it might just be time to man the barricades again.