There’s Something Funky About Mr Cheese: Education and Minimalistic Living

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

It’s been reported recently that a great portion of UK graduates find themselves in non-graduate roles. The numbers vary depending upon where they’re sourced (1, 2), but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) find this to be the case for 59% of graduates. On top of that, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) reports that while graduate employment is increasing, graduate salaries are decreasing. Our once financially accessible, comprehensive education system has caused an imbalance. We are now inundated with ‘over-qualified’ and ‘underpaid’ workers. This is apparently a bad thing, and undoubtedly provides the government with ammunition as they continue to make higher-education less financially feasible.

“The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher value, higher skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed. Simply increasing the qualification level of individuals going into a job does not typically result in the skill required to do the job being enhanced – in many cases that skills premium, if it exists at all, is simply wasted.”      Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD.

However, we ought to ensure that education and qualification are not conflated, nor used in politico-economic equivocations. They are very much separate things, valuable in their own distinct ways. Indeed, whilst someone may well be overqualified, no one can ever be overeducated. Such a thing just doesn’t exist. The idea that education is only valuable insofar as it provides us with routes to prosperity is flawed (such sentiments perfectly encapsulate the nature by which our democracy is cannibalised by our economic culture). Education has many more advantages other than simply enhancing one’s qualifications. It provides the ability to navigate complex moral scenarios. It enables informed democratic participation. It facilitates compassion and understanding. Education provides the tools with which we can properly avoid or manage conflict. Qualifications provide little value in comparison.

So, whether they realise it or not, Mr Cheese, the BIS and the political arguments their reports endorse, all of them are firing blanks. The key to this professed problem is not to discourage education, nor to make it less accessible. Rather, it is to encourage a culture that embraces education as it is, valuable in and of itself. A culture which, as a benefit of being educated, is versatile, inclusive, resourceful and sustainable. Hence why I do not believe that a country containing a considerable number ‘over-qualified’ graduates is a bad thing. The same goes for working a job that is well within the limits of one’s capabilities. You can have a PhD and be shopkeeper, a dustbin-man, a cleaner. That’s fine. Your qualification might have gone to waist but your education certainly has not.

In fact, given the tremendous contributions extravagant lifestyles pay towards the destruction of our biosphere, living a little more minimalistically is nothing short of applaudable. It ought to be encouraged even. When the common conception of a good job is one that pays well, something has gone awry. Higher earners, with their gas-guzzling cars and imported goods, their hasty purchasing and disposal of needless novelty products, their Christmases, Valentines Days, Easters, Halloweens, not to mention several dozen somewhat insignificant celebrations dotted in-between, their urgent desire to buy bigger, better, more – the higher earners definitely contribute more to global warming. Far from speculation, this is simply the truth of the matterSomewhere in the region of 26% of all the UK’s emissions are created by domestic and international transport, imports and exports. The more you consume, the greater your involvement in that statistic. The typical Brit will emit as much CO2 in one day as a Kenyan will in a year. The average American emits 2000 times more than someone living in Chad. Such statistics seem a little extreme, but they definitely highlight the point. Aren’t their any limits to the excessive compulsions of those who have a little doe? The culture we’ve been raised in demands us to consume. It says, earn more, buy more, eat more – repeat, and sells it all under a light of good intention, but tells us little of the wider ruinous effects it has on the natural world, the poor and underprivileged, indigenous communities, and future generations. Minimalism, or at least living a little less extravagantly, given our currently fragile position, is now a moral requirement.

This is why the statistics surrounding graduate employment are to some extent encouraging. How can we expect anything less if this is what is morally required of us? By embracing minimalism and realising the true value of education as something entirely distinct from any qualification it may or may not underpin, the concept of over-qualification becomes entirely redundant. So too does the notion that a broadly accessible, comprehensive education system can produce anything other than desirable effects on the whole.

As soon as I read these reports I could smell that there was something a little funky with Mr Cheese and his gang. Their equivocations failed to go undetected.

A.C. Stark