This article appeared today. It made me think…
Let’s assume higher education is a private good (an assumption common among those who believe everything is a private good), to be paid for privately. It is worth paying for, because higher education leads to higher future income, they say, and of course income is what matters, because more money equates to more things, more security, more freedom.
Since higher education leads to higher income, it is reasonable to borrow to fund it. (And in the unlikely event that it doesn’t lead to higher income, we’ll let you off paying back your debt, so there’s no need to worry about that at all.)
But suppose everyone accepts this argument and many people go to university, coming out with their degrees expecting the higher paid jobs they’ve been promised. Where are these jobs coming from? Why should more graduates lead to more graduate jobs? The jobs, it turns out, are not there, so the graduates take jobs that they could have done without a degree and are worse off because they also have a huge debt. They are disempowered by this system, not empowered by their education. The people who didn’t get degrees are not in so much debt but may be worse off because they have to compete with so-called ‘better qualified’ people, though the jobs they seek do not require those qualifications.
Who benefits? The organisations that trade in the interest streams generated by all this debt, and the recipients of the interest on loans.
The fundamental flaw in all this seems to be the simplistic idea that a society consisting largely of graduates is a good thing to aim for on individual economic grounds. This ignores the fact that the many jobs that don’t require degrees still have to be done by someone – not everyone can, or should, be an accountant or a doctor or an academic. It also assumes that productivity will expand in parallel with the number of graduates in order to generate the larger incomes they all should get. There seems to be a logical/mathematical problem here.
So we find the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development arguing that not so many people should be getting degrees, because it turns out they are not ‘good value’ after all. From an economic point of view, degrees for all is a bad idea – for the students and for their future employers. The article concludes that ‘this situation is also bad for employers and the economy as this type of qualification and skills mismatch is associated with lower levels of employee engagement and loyalty, and will undermine attempts to boost productivity.’ (Hmm … education of your workforce makes your jobs undesirable? Maybe the job needs to change.)
Would it be better, then, to limit higher education to a minority, and encourage the rest to be loyal, willing, though less well paid, employees, just like the good old days?
Or should we reconsider our understanding of the ‘value’ of education? If higher education for all, or at least for most, does not make sense when conceived in individual monetary terms, perhaps it should be conceived (and funded) differently. If it isn’t only a matter of earning potential, maybe it’s worth having for its own sake and for the sake of the community and culture we all share. As a measure of value, money is a poor candidate. It is only of value itself as far as it gets you other things, as a means to things of value in themselves. And the value of money declines the more you have – how many yachts can a person use? But education, understanding, skill, do not suffer from diminishing returns. There is always more to be learnt, more worth learning.
A society where education to whatever level is accessible to whoever chooses to pursue it is one that recognises the value of thought, of understanding, of curiosity, of open-mindedness, of creativity, of reason. These are things that should matter whether or not they make you wealthier, public goods that are worth paying for publically.
Copyright ©2016 F. Watts