Last week, it was announced that publishing giant Penguin Random House will no longer require candidates for new jobs to have degrees – a move that seemed to be greeted all round as good news.
Well, I hate to be a Negative Nelly, but I’m not convinced it’s really all that. It’s a positive move in that it does try and address the lack of diversity in publishing – a step that’s sorely needed – and as grants are being cut and fees are increasing, other firms may follow suit (Ernst & Young have announced similar plans) – but something about this decision is niggling at me.
It might be purely personal – when I went home the other day, my mother mentioned she’d heard about it on the news, and suggested I apply. How she forgot I have a degree and an MA is beyond me, as she paid for one of them (don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful to her, and know how lucky I am that she did). But for graduates like myself (and I’m not saying I’m special; there are thousands of us) – who came out of university between 2010 and 2012 and found that no-one cared how qualified we were, there simply weren’t enough jobs to go around – it’s not helpful news. When I raised the issue of Penguin’s decision on Twitter, someone very wise nailed it by firstly pointing out the simple fact that you can pay non-graduates less, and secondly by making the observation that going to university is now “a very expensive way of becoming unemployable through education”. I don’t think a truer word has been spoken in a long time, and it’s worrying that Penguin’s change to its requirements essentially compounds that view. When the announcement was made, the group’s HR Director Neil Morrison said, “the growing evidence shows there is no simple correlation between having a degree and future professional success”. Excuse me for sounding incredibly bitter, but cheers for that, Neil. Way to undermine what thousands of twenty-somethings were told throughout their entire schooling lives. (Sorry, it’s been a long day.)
The thing is, university education, and having it or not having it, isn’t the real problem. The real obstacle back then, as it still is now, is that there are certain industries you can only get into from a launchpad of unpaid or under-paid internships.
The conversation that hasn’t been had nearly enough – or, if it has, it’s been lost amid all the “entitled millennials” think-pieces, the Daily Mail “they don’t know they’re born” commentary – is that internships shouldn’t exist. At least, not in their current form, or the shape they took a handful of years ago. If you’re getting something, i.e. work, out of someone, fucking pay them. If you’re training them, call it what it is – an apprenticeship, a training scheme – and pay their expenses. When did working for free become the thing you had to do to get anywhere in the creative industries? And why did we just accept it? Are Penguin going to be doing away with internships too, to further open up publishing to a more diverse range of candidates?
The other incredibly troubling thing about Penguin’s announcement is that it just sounds like world-weary acceptance of the fact that higher education is being made ever more exclusive. Don’t take degrees off your list of requirements, Penguin – fund some scholarships. Lobby the government to perhaps re-think the whole ‘tuition fees’ debacle. Or do all three. I could be wrong, but I’d hazard a guess that the kids who’d quite like to work in publishing will also be the kids who’d quite like to spend three years reading, analysing, writing about and talking about books, and who’d do quite well out of going to university. Or, to put it another way: I don’t think publishing is necessarily the industry in which we most need to get rid of the need for degrees.
Other questions I have about this include, but are not limited to the following: will candidates with degrees be knocked out of the running earlier now? I very much doubt this, but it’s worth asking. Or will this just be a token claim, and will the reality be that things carry on just as they are? What in particular triggered this decision in the first place?
It is a well-meaning move, that much is obvious, but who it’s actually going to benefit in the long run isn’t clear. I’m aware that my feelings about it come from a selfish place – it wasn’t the lack of degree that stopped me doing what I wanted to do, it was the assumption that I would work for free to ‘earn’ the right to be paid. I don’t think rising university fees are the only obstacle preventing anyone who isn’t white and middle-class making it in the arts, or even the biggest one. Until the issues of internships and working for free are tackled, nothing is going to change. It seems so obvious from here.
And one more thing…
The Daily Mail (who else?!) ran this AMAZING piece today. I’m not going to link to it – because why give them the page hits? – but I’m in baffled awe of the way they’ve become an utter parody of themselves. They have to be trolling us all, right? I’m not a wife, so perhaps I can’t fully understand the depth and nuance of the above question, but I have to say that my answer to it would be a wholehearted yes. Firstly, hot men interacting with small children is always adorable, and secondly, if in six or seven years’ time, DB says to me, “why don’t you go back to work, and I’ll stay at home with Lysander and Lila-Rose?” my answer will take the form of me running out the front door to the nearest office space as fast as my short legs will carry me. Not because I don’t want to be around to see my children grow up, but because I think we’re so far past gender stereotypes that it shouldn’t matter who stays at home for those early years, as long as somebody loving and caring does.
Will I still fancy DB if at some point we agree he should be the stay-at-home parent? Are you kidding me? What’s hotter than someone who a) loves you and your life together so much that they’re happy to make the as-yet-still-nonstandard choice when it comes to raising a family, and b) understands that women still suffer in the workplace in many ways, but often as a result of being the baby-havers – and actively tries to address that?