There are many reasons to go to university: for some it’s about enhancing career prospects, for others it’s the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge in a favourite subject, while for many it is simply an excuse to move out and party.
When it’s all over, graduates might hope that their new education would help them get on the career ladder. But the 2008 financial crisis has made entering the job market tough, so much so that almost a quarter of the country’s recent graduates are currently unemployed.
Commenting on this situation this past week, the employment minister, Mette Frederiksen, said that graduates ought to make more compromises on which work they were willing to accept.
“There is something very wrong with going to school for 20 years without knowing what you are going to do with it,” Frederiksen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “When you start further education you are an adult. You are responsible for yourself.”
Frederiksen’s comments drew the ire of students and employment experts, particularly because of her suggestion that graduates ought to even apply for work at supermarkets such as Netto.
“It’s a gross political statement,” Flemming Ibsen, an employment market researcher at Aalborg University replied in Jyllands-Posten. “Netto doesn’t need more applicants and they could easily get young people to do the jobs. It’s wrong to place the responsibility on graduates because the problem is a lack of jobs and growth.”
In the ensuing debate about graduates and work, two broad attitudes have presented themselves. Many support the view that there are jobs, simply not the ideal ones the graduates had studied for. Others, though, argue that it is a waste to give people a university degree, only for them to look for work in supermarkets – especially when the government paid for both their tuition and living costs.
The reluctance of students to take unskilled work after university may be due to the fact that unemployment benefits amount to 17,073 kroner a month before tax – nearly the same salary as an unskilled job. Graduates simply need to sign up with an unemployment insurer, or A-kasse, within a month of graduating in order to qualify.
But for some, unemployment benefits run out after a year, and in the meantime, job seekers are made to enter the workforce through a variety of programmes designed to give them work experience.
These programmes are now coming under fire from graduates who claim they are being used as free labour by companies, while experts warn the explosion in the popularity of the programmes could suppress the job market.
The main offender, graduates feel, is the løntilskud programme, which allows companies to employ those on unemployment benefits and pay them a salary that is largely subsidised by their local councils.
Among the complaints about løntilskud jobs is that the graduates are not guaranteed a job after completing their contract. Moreover, the programme requires them to sign up for a fixed period of a year or less, during which time they are prevented from moving on if a better job training opportunity arises.
According to Charlotte Kjærholm Pedersen, who graduated last September from the University of Copenhagen with a master’s degree in modern culture, unions and unemployment insurers readily admit behind closed doors that the programmes don’t necessarily lead to permanent employment, but still encourage their members to take them.
Pedersen co-authored an article that appeared in Information newspaper on Monday that accuses unions of not doing enough to encourage their members not to take løntilskud jobs that, according to a report from the University of Aarhus, actually keep participants out of work for longer.
Pedersen also took offence to the suggestion by the employment minister that graduates like her were not actively seeking work or willing to be flexible.
“I am very open to changing career,” Pedersen told The Copenhagen Post. “That’s what I find so aggravating. The politicians are presenting it like there’s a bunch of graduates sitting around not doing anything. That’s just not true.”
Pedersen added that ultimately there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Despite the fact she is looking broadly and has a good education, complemented by plenty of experience at relevant student jobs, she has so far had no luck.
“Everyone I knew had relevant study jobs. It was really important. I know I’ve chosen a career where jobs would be available and I’ve worked really hard for it. I’m not sure what I can do to be more attractive.”
Responding to Pedersen’s criticism, Franciska Lee Beckett from Dansk Magisterforening (DM), the union for university graduates, stated that løntilskud programmes were not meant to replace work.
“I am aware that løntilskud programmes during recessions can warp the job market and undermine graduates’ chances of finding work,” Beckett wrote in a press release. “It’s exactly this point that DM is trying to get politicians to pay attention to.”
While employment minister Frederiksen is currently examining ways of reforming the unemployment benefit system, Syddansk Universitet and Aalborg Universitet recently announced that they are setting up their own career centres.
“[Publicly funded employment centres] don’t know anything about university education and don’t know what jobs they can lead to,” Jens Oddershede, the president of Danske Universiteter, which represents the country’s eight universities, told news website Den Korte Avis. “The employment market for graduates has changed over the years and we need to adjust.”