Studying Abroad and the Neoliberal ‘Cult of Experience’ in the Youth Labour Market

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Figures released this week have shown that more UK students than ever are travelling abroad as part of their degree programmes.

Last year, 15,566 UK students studied in another country as participants in the European Union’s Erasmus programme. This was a 115% increase in the number who took part in 2007, when the scheme was first extended to the UK. Large increases in students travelling to China, India and the USA have also been observed.

The figures were released ahead of the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international education. Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council Director of Education, said, “This latest evidence confirms that a growing number of the UK’s students are recognising the huge value to be gained from international experience… The UK needs graduates who have the skills and confidence to compete globally, and can compete against foreign talent that may speak more languages, and have wider international experience.”

An Erasmus promotional video highlighting the professional benefits of studying abroad.

Clare Holdsworth addresses the seemingly uncontroversial nature of such statements in a recent article for Area. Holdsworth argues:

Young people are called upon to make themselves employable through engaging in a range of experiences that may include: volunteering, work experience, paid work, internships, travel, leisure and membership of organisations. This fetishizing of experience is becoming so normalised that it is rarely contested. It appears self-evident that in order to protect themselves against an absent future, young people need to not only complete more education and/or training, but they have to acquire experiences to stand out from the crowd.

Holdsworth takes issue with the commodification of experience, suggesting that experiences gained in order to guarantee a better future are ‘conventional and passive’, and have little to do with experimentation, creativity, exploration or learning. Holdworth’s main focus, however, is with the popular notion that the acquisition of experience is a solution to the difficulties of the current youth labour market:

The prevailing popular discourse of youth is one of failure against the need to do better. Thus if academic grades increase, this is because of grade inflation; if more young people are out of work, this is because they do not have the correct skills; if graduates cannot get jobs, this is because they have not acquired the right ‘experiences’… This failure to see beyond the supply side of the labour market is having profound effects on young people’s lives… Not only are young people still faced with the difficulty of finding a job, they are having to do so in direct competition with their peers in a ever-growing globalised labour supply… Thus programmes for work experience, placements, volunteering, internships etc. are rolled out in order to compel young people to invest in their own futures…The cult of experience reinforces this charging of responsibility and passes over other solutions that target the demand side of the youth labour market.

The article highlights the arms race-like nature of the neoliberal youth employment market: as experience is seen as increasingly necessary in order to compete with one’s peers, young people are compelled to engage in more and more homogenised ‘experiences’, effectively ‘running faster in order to stand still’. Invariably, those who win this experience arms race are those with the greatest financial means.

This article also raises important questions for university geography departments; fieldwork has long been seen as a crucial part of a geography degree, but how, in a neoliberal educational establishment, can the experience of fieldwork be elevated above that of a CV-enhancing commodity and turned into a ‘genuine’ learning experience, encouraging students to explore, experiment and consider their own subjectivity?

 Clare Holdsworth, 2015, The cult of experience: standing out from the crowd in an era of austerityArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12201.

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