Do you remember opening the envelope with your Leaving Cert results? Can you still feel the anxiety, the hopes, the disappointments and then the calculations, totting up points to see if you made the cut?

This morning, close to 60,000 teenagers will receive their Leaving Cert results. The Leaving Cert remains one of the few collective group experiences that most Irish children have. It’s the educational equivalent of national military service.

Underpinning the annual Leaving Cert event and the points race which unfortunately goes with the territory, is the understanding that third level education will give teenagers a head start in the jobs market.

This is a type of social contract. Many thousands of students today will hope that their Leaving Cert results will be a springboard to college and that college itself will be a springboard to a better career.

Up to a point, this pact between students, parents, universities and employers still holds true.

However, this understanding is beginning to fray as the cost of third level education rises and the wages graduates are achieving are falling.

Recent trends in globalisation – including hyper-competition in the global jobs market from Asian students – indicate that the return to education may well be falling for the average student. Remember it is the average student – not the superstars – that third level education is supposed to train and educate. The average student enjoys what is known as the “university experience” – the friends, the networks and the good times. In a world of cheap, sometimes superior online education, the college experience is one of the few things that universities can honestly offer.

The other, of course, is status. The stamp of a degree from such and such a place is still used as a universally recognised quality control mechanism.

Acquiring this degree traditionally propelled these students up the job escalator, giving them a much better chance of a much better job.

Does this still hold? Are most universities still a passport to a better career or is this only the case for the very best ones?

If a third level education no longer helps young adults achieve a better job and a better wage, then the universities have a big problem because education is very expensive.

And it is expensive not just for the students and their families but for the rest of the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Yesterday, this paper published a survey from the Credit Unions of Ireland, offering a glimpse of the financial cost of third level education and the sacrifices that parents are making.

Some 80pc of parents today support their child with college-related costs. This is costing €421 per month on average per child. That’s close to €10,000 before tax. Four out of 10 parents use their savings to fund third level education and a quarter of all parents borrow from their local credit union to fund college.

On average, parents who are using their savings put aside money for eight years – every month – in order to finance their children’s expenses. And remember this is taking place in a country where the State picks up the lion’s share of the tab for fees.

Where there are registration fees, seven out of 10 parents said that the family budgets are squeezed by the increased fees. Half of students eligible for grants didn’t get them on time and, as a result, one-third of families that are supposed to get grants stated they had to sacrifice spending on essential household bills because of the delays.

Now let’s come to the State’s portion.

THE annual cost per student in post-secondary education in Ireland was €12,051 – above the OECD average of €10,500. This is the cost of the universities. Each four-year undergraduate degree costs an average of €48,204 per student.

Taken together with what the parents pay, which according to the Credit Unions is as much as another €40,000 before tax, we are talking about a very large amount per degree. Now look at the return that the graduates are getting for that. Remember the old understanding that the university education gave the students a marked leg-up in the jobs market?

We know youth unemployment is running at unprecedented levels and we know that graduates are emigrating in much greater numbers than non-graduates.

Could it be that the social contract is breaking down?

Could it be that the graduate jobs market is now truly international and the competition never more fierce because of globalisation and the impact of technology bringing opportunities to people in parts of the world that never before had such opportunity?

For example, just consider the online revolution. Today there are two billion people online. In eight years’ time, there will be five billion. This is three billion new minds, new ways of doing things and new ways of looking at the world coming online and competing in the global jobs market.

Now clearly there are huge opportunities for enterprising young people in this online explosion. Selling online is the future for many sectors and collaboration online will change the way most of us do business. However, for the salaryman or average Irish worker with a degree, there are more threats than opportunities.

The numbers tell the story.

If we look at the number of people in recent years who are unemployed but have said that they have never worked before, we see an increase of 97pc from October 2009 to July 2013. In absolute terms, 5,237 said they were unemployed but had never worked before in 2009; by last month this figure had jumped to 10,337 people. While not all of these people are students the vast majority are likely to be unemployed graduates.

Today, youth unemployment (under 25) is running at 30.4pc. Many people argue that things were just as bad in the 1980s when I was in university but that’s not the case. Throughout the 1980s, youth unemployment averaged 22.9pc. If you are young right now, you have 30pc more chance of being unemployed than you would have had in the bleak 1980s.

The days of a degree propelling you into a safe, well-paid job appears to be a thing of the past. This will have enormous implications for the value for money in going to university, particularly if there is an opportunity cost in staying out of the world of work until after your degree. If they want to survive, middle-ranking universities – all of Ireland’s – will need to train their graduates to be more employable.

Or failing that, graduates will have to become more entrepreneurial in the face of both competition and opportunity abroad.

In terms of the likelihood of the above two, I’d bet on the latter rather than the former.

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