Who pays?

Who is willing to pay for careers information/advice/education?


Those of us who are involved in the careers world would make the argument that being able to draw in help with your career is both a social and an individual good. Careers advice can help to direct society’s resources and maximise the productive potential of the population. What is more it can also help an individual to make the most of their skills and increase their likelihood of being happy and wealthy. Careers work may also help employers and learning providers to attract the right people as recruits, finally it may also help support the engagement of employed staff with their own careers and students with their studies. So if we accept even some of these arguments it is possible to argue that careers work is a valuable thing and that we should really find a way for someone to pay for it.


It seems to me that there a number of likely (and less likely) candidates to pay for careers work.


First and foremost is the government or someone else (e.g. charity) who wants to pay for the social and economic benefits that careers work might bring. At the moment this is how the bulk of careers work is funded. Connexions and Next Step provide careers advice for thousands and thousands of people free at the point of demand. Ring up Next Step and you can get advice on learning opportunities, the labour market and your career. You can also get more advice from Job Centre Plus and a host of other publicly funded sources. This is all well and good and I believe that careers advice should be publically funded, however given the current climate this might not be the most stable source of funding. There are also downsides to leaving this all to the government. It tends to mean that the advice gets directed towards particular groups, usually the poor, where it is expected to solve problems that are much more complex than careers issues. The focus on NEETs under the last government was a good example. The careers sector was dancing to a policy tune and being expected to magically solve long term trends in inequality and social exclusion. Correspondingly the government provides little funding for groups that aren’t perceived to be a problem regardless of whether careers advice might actually be able to help them e.g. mid-qualification employed people.


So Government is likely to be an important funder of careers work, but they are not very likely to pick up the whole tab. So the next group that are normally suggested are the individuals themselves. Careers advice, the argument goes, has major benefits for the individual, helping them to choose and then get jobs, so it is only right that the individual should pay for this. I don’t actually have a problem with this argument in theory. I think that careers advice does help individuals and there is no reason why is shouldn’t have a cost attached. However, the problem is that the market for individual pays careers services seems to be pretty small. Everyone talks about the idea of setting up a consultancy and working with high paying business customers. However I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that there is room for many people in this market. How much can you charge for an hour of something as slippery and long term as careers advice? The benefits usually take a long while to show up in any financial terms and may often involve you facing some uncomfortable truths. How much would you pay for that service?


Even if people can be persuaded to pay for careers services what is the appropriate model for them to be delivered in? How often will someone go back for more and where is the marketplace for these kinds of services. Furthermore how does an individual pays service avoid spinning out the sessions, telling people what they want to hear and fostering co-dependence? Who quality assures it? Even if I was convinced that significant numbers of people would pay for careers advice this isn’t an ethical panacea and we can find just as many problems in this funding model as we can in the government pays model.


A third option would be for employers and learning providers to pay for those services that direct individuals towards their recruiting grounds. This is not to say that careers work needs to just become an arm of recruitment but rather than employers and learning providers might recognise that having a place that individuals can access for careers advice is ultimately in their interests. However the flip side of this might be that it is so much in their interests that they devote time and money to turning it back into an arm of recruitment.


Finally we have the option that careers work might be seen as an integral part of a bigger experience. For example employers may feel that offering their staff career development opportunities is an important part of a broader workforce development strategy and that it offers a way to engage employees and to manage them within and through the organisation. Similarly educational institutions are used to providing students with careers advice as an integral part of the educational experience. Thinking about how what you are doing in your course might apply to rest of your life is a key aspect of learning and may actually help retention and the motivation of students. However as with other potential paymasters there are downsides as well as ups. Embedded careers work is likely to come under pressure to serve the organisation within which it is embedded. If the firm is considering redundancy then it is possible that the ideal career might suddenly start to be outside rather than inside the organisation. Similarly a University struggling for funds is likely to be keen to keep students taking more courses.


So ultimately we end up with the unsurprising finding that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. However, calling for the tune and getting it are not necessarily the same thing. If the careers
profession was stronger and better qualified and organised it is possible that the piper would have a better chance of playing the old favourite “impartiality” regardless of what the paymaster said. However while this may be a bulwark against abuses it isn’t likely to prevent the more subtle ways in which the agenda is influenced and professional practice shaped by metrics and management requirements. If there is an obvious solution then I can’t see it. Other than for both careers professionals and their clients to be aware of these contradictions and challenges and to constantly confront them. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right when he said “the price of good careers advice is eternal vigilance”.  


Setting up a fan page in Facebook

I’m trying to work out the best way to link my blog into Facebook. I’ve decided that posting everything to my profile is too annoying for people who don’t have any interest in career development but are desperate to find out whether I’ve eaten a Turkish delight or not. (I have and my Facebook status update allows my closest friends to know all about it).


So I’m experimenting with feeding the blog to a Fan Page.

This post is essentially just a test to see if it is working.

Michael Gove Westminster Speech

Michael Gove gave a speech to Westminster Academy earlier this month. It is worth a read for those of you who are interested in the government’s thinking on education. Gove praises teachers and says that Britain has got some of the best schools in the world, but feels that too many schools are poor. Unsurprising he says that the last government is to blame. Fair enough, he’s a politician, blaming the last lot is his job.

Gove then goes on to deal with some interesting stuff. What is wrong, he argues, is that too many of the poor (quality) schools are where (financially) poor people go. He argues that this isn’t right. Schools he says should be engines of social mobility. Currently this isn’t the case and Gove once again blames the previous government. On their watch he argues Britain slipped down the international educational league tables.

Gove fills his speech with statistics and research. He cites Leon Feinstein, the PISA survey, Michael Barber and Fenton Whelan. So what is his answer? The last post I wrote (about The Spirit Level) suggested one possible answer – essentially that educational performance is worse for both poor people and across the board because our society is too unequal. I’m guessing that Gove doesn’t buy this analysis, but I’d still be interested to hear what he has to say about it.

Gove’s plan is not to reduce inequality but rather to increase the amount of assessment and the rigour of external testing, to free up schools (AKA remove them from local authority control) and to support the teaching profession (which seems to be a mix of a bit less central curriculum, a bit more disciplinary authority and some more male teachers).

However he then goes on to talk more about teachers. Teachers are important – it is they who determine pupil success and not silly old things like inequality. He then talks a lot about Teach First which is essentially a school based teacher training programme. I don’t know alot about Teach First so I’m not going to say that this is a a bad decision. What I am pretty sure about is that education is both a theoretical and a practical activity. I hope the government will be wary about going in a direction that reduces the level of pedagogic understanding of teachers and replaces it with more practical experience. I’m not saying that Teach First does this, but my feeling is probably that university based teacher education is not theoretical enough rather than too theoretical as some people seem to be suggesting. Obviously an HE school of education is not the only place that you can learn critical pedagogy – but it probably is the first place that many teachers do encounter it.

Another big idea is the Pupil Premium which will direct some money to schools in poorer areas. This might be good – obviously it depends in part on how big the premium is and where it is taken from. Another big idea is phonics, another is curriculum innovation through computer games. Gosh, Gove is all over the place, but you can’t blame him for lack of ideas. On we go, an English Baccalaureate, more language learning and of course more STEM.

Wow – he’s certainly going to be busy. There is such a mix here that I’m not really sure what it all adds up to. Some stuff is good, other bits raise concerns, some seem peripheral at best. Ultimately the devil will be in the detail and in the implementation and all of that waits for us down the road….

The Spirit Level


I’ve just finished The Spirit Level. In case you’ve missed it, this book has been making some political waves and so I thought that I’d pick it up to see what it is all about.


Essentially the argument made in The Spirit Level is a very simple on. You can find strong correlations between things that everyone would agree are bad (poor health, crime, an uneducated populace, low levels of happiness and trust etc) and income inequality. The book concentrates on developed countries and finds that the overall wealth of the country makes little difference to the health and happiness of its populace. Once you’ve achieved a certain level of national wealth becoming more wealthy won’t really offer the population many benefits. So if overall wealth is not important then the way that wealth is shared out is very important. The relative wealth of people matters more than the absolute wealth of people.


The authors Wilkinson and Pickett hammer home this message about the importance of income equality with a huge number of different examples. They write engaging and draw in qualitative examples to help explain the point they are making, but the overall power comes from the correlation of the various measures of misery and the level of income inequality. An equal, fair society in which everyone has a stake is likely to be a better environment in which to live than a society where people observe huge differences between their situation and that of those around them. They acknowledge that there are a range of different ways to achieve income equality, so Japan maintains a much smaller gap between the rich and power through the medium of rates of pay, whereas the Scandinavian countries achieve equality through a redistributive taxation system. However, both of these systems work in terms of creating the good life for their populations. The more you allow inequality to grow the more crime, the worse your health, education and so on. What is more this doesn’t just hit the poor it also hits the middle-earners and the rich. Equality is good for everyone it seems.


Wilkinson and Pickett have described their book as ‘evidence based politics’. The problem is that their evidence suggests that a fairer, more equal and probably a more redistributive society is what is needed to heal “Broken Britain”. There final chapter suggests some fairly radical ways in which this could be achieved through workplace democracy and share ownership schemes. However this is probably not a message that is going to play well with the right. David Cameron has apparently said some positive things about the book, but the UK political right are now engaged in mudslinging against the research and conclusions of the Spirit Level. It seems difficult to find a way to square the message of the book with neo-liberal parties basic beliefs. However will it be possible for them to just dismiss the findings of the book. Wilkinson and Pickett have found that equality works and also that subtly different political economies can produce quiet different political results. Perhaps their biggest finding is that politics does matter and that change and different political solutions are still possible.


What does all this mean for those of us who are interested in guidance? On one hand it is rather depressing as the ultimate conclusion of The Spirit Level is pretty structuralist. The likely outcome for individuals and societies is determined not by what they are told, but rather by the social and economic circumstances in which they find themselves. It is very unlikely on a reading of The Spirit Level that significant numbers of people are going to upskill themselves out of poverty. Political change is required if you expect to see social change. Career guidance is unlikely to be the factor that breaks the strong correlation between income inequality and educational or labour market achievement.


However there are a number of messages that might be of interest to careers workers in this book. The first is that aspiration is relative. We seek to be more like others and to ape their behaviour and achievements. Current society tends to emphasise the financial and material achievements and to centre aspiration around that. Guidance potentially has a role in challenging this version of aspiration (having more) and introducing alternative vision based on social impact (doing good) or work life balance (feeling good) or education (knowing more). Careers work may have a role in understanding things about the way the world works and in helping people to ask questions that improve their own understanding. People probably know that the world isn’t fair, but they may be interested in knowing more about how unfair it is or why it is unfair. Careers work has one role in helping them to individually circumvent the unfairness of the world, but it may also have a role in helping them to collectively challenge the unfairness. Wilkinson and Pickett’s call for workplace democracy might be one thing that careers workers would be more interested in knowing about and in directing their clients to think about.


Perhaps this is pushing impartiality a bit too far, but if the alternative is just to conclude that the current level of income inequality is likely to determine an individuals health, wealth and happiness more than their abilities or potential, it might just be worth the push.


Hard Times is now available

I wrote a blog about the new ARMA/Vitae publication Hard Times the other week after it had been mentioned in the Times Higher.

Thankfully the full publication is now available. So download if you you are at all interested.

Edited by me, Sara Williams and Ray Kent it features the following papers:


  • Tristram Hooley, Ray Kent, Sara Williams, Introduction: Hard Times? Building and Sustaining Research Capacity in UK Universities
  • Chris Hale, Full Economic Costing and the Sustainability of the UK Research Base
  • Liz Oliver, The Legislation on Fixed-term Employees and the Employment of Researchers
  • Jane Thompson, Career Progression for Researchers in UK HEIs 17
  • Robin Mellors-Bourne, Views from the Research Front-Line: the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) 2009
  • Robert A. Daley, Building Bridges on Shifting Sands: the Challenges Facing Research Managers and Administrators in Supporting Researchers

Hopefully there is quiet a bit of interest in there to people who are interested in how research and researchers are managed. Where I think that it pushed things forward most is in focusing attention on some of the more structural factors that underpin the management of researchers. Training and advice is only likely to be part of the story in improving the career contexts of researchers in higher education.