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Education and the Economy: debunking the philistine myth

    CPS Education Expert Tom Burkard explains why calls for investment in education for economic benefit often ignore the reality of vocational education. 

    In the West, professional educators—what Chris Woodhead refers to as 'the blob'--share a set of assumptions completely at odds with Michael Gove and the reformers.  You simply cannot square discovery learning with teaching pupils to solve quadratic equations, nor can children's rights come first if teachers are truly in control of their classrooms.  Or, to put a more modern gloss on things, the technology-obsessed zealots of the '21st-century skills' brigade will never be reconciled with Matthew Arnold's belief that education should concern itself with “the best that has been thought and said”.

    However, the establishment and its critics are partners in a sack race when it comes to linking education and the economy.  The former passionately argue for more 'investment' in our future (and their jobs), whereas the latter claim that Britain's economy is doomed if our schools continue to produce graduates who can't write a coherent sentence or balance a chequebook.  These arguments are lent a certain force by employers, whose representatives frequently complain that students leave education without vital skills.  In a modern economy based upon rapid technological change, this just seems like common sense.

    However, if this were really so, how do we explain the continuing economic (and technological) dominance of the United States?  Judging by its schools, America should be a banana republic.  And the old Soviet Union—where education of the scientific elite was superb—would never have collapsed.  In fact, a nation's economic and technological prowess has relatively little to do with its educational arrangements, and even less to do with its schools.  Captial flows where it can make profits—where taxes are low, and where people are free to invest their money as they see fit. 

    Technological advance depends upon a tiny super-elite who are largely self-taught.  Gary Yanik, the physicist who led Reagan's 'Star Wars' programme, put it like this:

    I only achieved BS in Physics, Math, and Chemistry...with no advanced degrees. Interestingly I never had any classes in electronics but still design world class electronics.  When it was time to take electronics at the University of Michigan, my advisor said I had already designed things for his lab that he did not fully understand and suggested that taking a "class" in electronics seemed ridiculous because I was already more capable at designing and building electronics than my instructor would ever be. Lasers, for which I am reasonably famous, were invented during my college days but were not part of the current curriculum -- so I never had laser classes either.

    The foot-soldiers of the digital age—the common garden-variety geeks—are produced in vast quantities throughout the world. With modern communications and the globalised economy, it is now possible to outsource a wide range of technical functions.  Even in the UK, we produce more STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates than the economy can possibly absorb.  In 2006, before the crash, only 11% of our physics graduates found jobs in R&D.  Even now, 17% of our Computer Science grads are unemployed—higher than for any other subject.

    None of this would be any surprise to Prof Alison Wolf.  In 2002 she published “Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth”.  She picked apart the data which have been used to justify 'investment' in higher education.  Traditionally, a degree has been assumed to confer a huge advantage in terms of life-time earnings.  It is also assumed that a degree actually adds to the 'human capital' of a nation in terms of enhanced skills. 

    Alas, once you strip out professions such as medicine and law where entry is restricted, earnings of graduates differ little from those who leave formal education at A-level.  Even this may overstate the case for getting a degree: the data exclude the self-employed (11% of the workforce), who have higher-than average earnings, despite lower-than-average educational attainment.

    Looking at it from the perspective of an 18-year-old, the economic case against higher education is even more alarming.  Of those who start a degree course, almost a quarter drop out.  Of those who don't, over a third are either unemployed or working in a job which doesn't require a degree.  So only half of those who enter higher education receive graduate salaries—which in any case, aren't much to write home about.  Except, of course, to ask one's parents with help paying off your student loan.

    What of the 'human capital' argument?  Might it not be true that higher graduate earnings reflect increased productivity?  I reviewed the evidence in “Inside the Secret Garden: The progressive decay of liberal education”, and it was underwhelming.  Insofar as differentials exist—and there can be no doubt that graduates of our elite universities do earn more than non-graduates—it seems much more likely that employers regard degrees from good universities as markers of desirable qualities. 

    Relatively few humanities degrees teach any skills needed in the workplace—and degrees in STEM subjects confer an advantage only in management jobs which don't, strictly speaking, require a technical degree.  The notion that universities teach students how to set out their ideas in writing or to think critically would not be supported by the unfortunate dons who have to mark their essays.  On the other hand, employers understand that your average Cantabrian has a ready-made social network of the highest order.

    Prof Wolf's case against vocational education is even more damning.  With the exception of traditional crafts, the needs of business and industry evolve so rapidly that by the time a new qualification or course is devised, it is long since obsolete. In Germany, where vocational training is widely admired, the school-based component of FE is merely a watered-down version of the same academic subjects taught in the higher streams. All workplace skills are taught in the workplace. It is interesting that business in the UK is starting to respond; from accountancy to burger-flipping, employers are devising or supporting the training they need.

    The next time you hear the siren sounding for more investment in education, or more initiatives to 'reform' our schools, take a deep breath.  Remember that when Britain led the world in the technological, commercial and scientific revolutions that created the modern democratic economy, education was strictly a private matter, with virtually no support from the taxpayer.

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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