Pink Floyd sang We Don’t Need No Education. Economics teacher Peter Lyons doesn’t go that far, but he does question if we need so much education:
Countries with a better educated population do appear to be more prosperous. This may be a false causation. Higher education levels may lead to prosperity, but more likely is that national prosperity provides the funding for higher education levels.
There is evidence to suggest that pouring money into tertiary education may not be the silver bullet for achieving higher living standards. Economic growth is the result of increasing the value of output per worker.
The key element is productivity levels. Much of what is learnt in school or university does little to increase the future potential output of the learner.
This is not to deny that education has great value in producing people who can live a good life and participate fully in society. The question is whether levels of tertiary education are the key to economic prosperity.
A friend noted that when his children started secondary school in the 1990s there were about 100 pupils in the third form, almost all of them stayed on to the seventh form and more than half of them went on to tertiary education, most to university. He contrasted that with his own experience in the 1960s when there were around 200 third formers, only 20 seventh formers fewer than half of whom went on to tertiary studies.
One obvious change from the 60s to the 90s was the increase in the number of people who were unemployed and it must be better to have teenagers at school than leaving to go on to a benefit. Another is the increasing use of technology which has replaced some manual jobs which people who left school with no or few qualifications used to do.
Then there are occupations like nursing, training for which used to take place on-the-job in hospitals, that now takes place in polytechnics or university.
The tertiary participation rates in New Zealand have surged over the past two decades but there is little evidence that this has translated into increased labour productivity and economic wellbeing.
The need for highly educated workers to man the knowledge economy is largely a myth. Much of the knowledge of the modern economic environment is embedded in the capital that workers use. That capital may take the form of computers, earthmoving equipment, laboratory gear or robotics.
The knowledge economy has meant that many jobs have become deskilled or redefined. The checkout operator no longer needs to add. Procedures once performed by doctors can now be done by nurses and chemists. The accountant can produce final reports at the push of a button.
What appears to have happened is that as more people have sought to gain higher qualifications this puts pressure on others to do likewise. An implicit function of any education system is to act as a sorting mechanism. As rampant qualification inflation has occurred the entry bar to various occupations has been raised, compelling people to seek higher qualifications.
We now have more people studying and more qualifications they can study towards, but does more mean better? Karl du Fresne calls it credentials creep:
Credentials creep has been great for the educational establishment. It has enabled polytechnics to turn their backs on budding hairdressers and panel beaters and re-invent themselves as pretend universities. And it has provided careers for countless people who were nondescript practitioners in their chosen occupations but who now teach others: second-rate academics running second-rate courses.
The result is that academic qualifications have been degraded to the point where workplaces teem with technically well-qualified drones and dullards. I’m with the British writer Desmond Bagley, who once said: “If a man is a fool, you don’t train him out being a fool by sending him to a university. You merely turn him into a trained fool, which is 10 times more dangerous.”
Peter Lyons says that technological improvement has driven prosperity since the industrial revolution but doubts this has accelerated in recent years:
The massive technological changes from 1850 to 1950 dwarf more recent developments in their impacts on people’s daily lives. Consider such innovations as cars, planes, electricity, fridges, air-conditioning and the telephone.
These innovations were not the outcome of tertiary-educated workforces. They were developed by a core of thinkers, scientists and innovators then diffused by entrepreneurs through the marketplace for mass consumption.
Prosperity is determined by how well a society uses its resources to produce final goods and services. Pouring huge amounts of public funds into formal tertiary education may be a distraction from this goal.
A friend who was a specialist in three dimensional thinking used to ask students in his university classes why they were there. If, as usually happened, they answered so they’d make more money he used to tell them they were in the wrong place andif that was their goal they’d be better off working than studying.
That doesn’t apply to everyone and every job, but he was asking them to seriously consider if the income forgone during three or more years study and the student loan incurred while doing it, could be justified by what they’d earn with their degrees.
It can for some but by no means all students.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for tertiary studies.
We need our best and brightest to be very highly educated so they can develop the tools and technologies for the rest of us to use, so we can become more productive.
But not everyone can make the All Blacks. We don’t need people with management degrees driving taxis or diplomas of tourism running bungee jumps.
I have no problem justifying the money and efforts which go in to basic education. It is difficult, if not impossible, to cope day to day let alone prosper without a reasonable level of literacy and numeracy.
But more tertiary education isn’t necessarily better for the students or the economy.