The trouble with education

9 12 2010

I guess it was inevitable that I’d have to write on this at some point, what with the furore over it.  It’s not something I was keen to write, since it’s closer to personal belief and opinion than a factual basis- thus open to potentially productive, but ultimately undecidable.  Equally, it’s an issue that lacks clearly defined boundaries, and many other factors come into play that are not directly involved (e.g. government spending on education compared to healthcare, military expenditure)

So let’s start with the most important point- I think education is the single most important public service.  I realise this is debatable, but as I said, this is an opinion piece.  I believe that education provides technological (and philosophical/sociological/psychological/ethical) advancement, greater societal cohesion, higher social mobility and increased happiness.  I would rather have these things at the cost of other areas of public spending, since I think it comes first.
Education is something I have always been very passionate about.  I used to think I wanted to be PM, now I think I’d rather be Minister for Education (although maybe not in this government!)  I think that the only real solution to humanity’s problems is better education.   I think educating people is a slow and gradual process, but I don’t see how we are to progress if people are not taught, early, the skills they need to grow, to better themselves, and to provide for themselves and others.

I hope that makes my position clear, as the last thing I’d want to hear from this is that I think education “isn’t important” or that some people “shouldn’t have it.”  I’d rather everyone as much of it as they could manage, and then some more- that would be ideal.

I’m an idealist, because I think you need to have ideals to aspire to, but I’m also a realist and a student of economics.  Economics is the study of allocation of limited resources- that’s the reality.  We, as a society, have limited resources and thus are forced to make trade offs between various “ideal” outcomes.  We thus elect representatives to choose a compromise on our behalf.

As I said, for the purposes of this piece I won’t get into which outcomes deserve more funding, but will talk about education as an area on its own.  It has costs and it has to be paid for.

It is clear that education provides a benefit both to the one educated and society as a whole.  Therefore it makes sense for both parties to contribute.  As an individual, you benefit from education via the skills & knowledge to engage effectively with society, increased employability and a sense of self-worth/personal achievement.  Of these, two are worth society’s investment, and one is not.  It’s true that if more people in society had high self worth society would almost certainly be happier and more cohesive.  On the other hand, this would also justify investment in any leisure activity that granted a sense of achievement.

So- the counter arguments.

People will say that people have the “right” to education.  As I explained in my article on the subject, I believe that what we call “rights” are privileges we collectively grant one another.  So how much education should society entitle people to?


“Education should be free!” <=> All education should have no financial cost to the learner.
So any amount of education is free (save only opportunity cost of learning as opposed to other options).
So the potential cost of education is infinite.


So the conclusion is that the premise (all education) must be incorrect.  Here’s my position:

“Some education should be free.”

The question then becomes: how much?

People need a certain level of education to fulfil their role in society- they need to be able to understand their responsibilities & entitlements as citizens.  Thus they need education in our language, in our legal system, our system of commerce, our system of government and not to mention the various career paths available to them and what will be useful qualifications to pursue to achieve those career goals.
This leads to my first criticism of our current education system- it does not teach citizens these fundamentals (as a prerequisite).  We learn mathematics & english, but not basic finance or law.  We expect people to follow the law and to engage in our economy, but we don’t perforce teach them how these things work?  I realise both are complex topics in their own right, but so is maths!  Career guidance is offered, but it should be compulsory and of much higher priority.  If people leave school with no idea of what career they wish to pursue, I think their school has not done them justice.

One of the most important things I learned from my teachers was he believed the purpose of school was to teach pupils how to learn.  That it was practice at the skill of learning- giving us the tools we needed to learn other things.  This then, I believe, is the second fundamental item to be delivered by education- the tools of learning- research, comprehension, extrapolation, summary, reasoning, argument etc.

Having delivered these basics, a given pupil is then capable of performing what society demands of them, as well as being equipped to learn other things (such as what their career will require).  These basics I believe should be covered to GCSE, at which point a diversification into academic/vocational/hybrid studies should be offered.  At 18 a given pupil should be equipped to enter the workforce full time.

Some professions, however, will always require more training than can be provided by 18.  Equally, within every discipline is the need for specialists, for expertise.  As such, higher education is an important stepping stone to achieving a certain standing in that field.  Society needs experts; it’s willing to pay for them.  How to know what society wants though?  I’d argue a review of how many graduates of various degrees gained employment in their chosen profession each year.  If a degree gets you a job in a relevant profession, it’s clear that society needs candidates with those degrees.  If people take a degree, whether it’s viewed as mickey mouse or not, and it means they are (as a statistical sample) no more employable than any other degree candidate, I would argue that is society’s way of saying “we don’t need this degree.”  This is an example of market forces.  Part of the problem with degree funding is that whilst market forces apply, they don’t affect the price of the degree.  Some degrees, whether by subject or by institution, are worth more to employers, but degrees all cost the same (on a per year basis).  Now I’m certainly not saying that a degree in a much-sought-after subject from a top university should cost more, but on the contrary, it is in those areas that more funding should be made available so that students are encouraged to study degrees that society requires.  Trends on degree prices should be available on UCAS so that potential students can see which degrees are becoming more (or less) valuable to employers.

One of my latest liberal ideas is that “people are free, but things are not.”  To paraphrase from open source: I believe people deserve to be free (as in freedom), they don’t deserve to have things for free (as in beer).
I believe that people should be free to study whatever they like.  I don’t believe that studying whatever you like should be free.  Ultimately, people need to accept the consequences of their actions- the choices you make have a cost that you must be willing to pay if you make that choice.  I believe that the government has a duty to ensure people have the knowledge to make informed choices, people have a duty to pay for the things they choose.  If a given degree will not improve someone’s chances at their chosen career, should they not pay for it themselves?  I don’t understand the logic that suggests that society should finance students studying anything they fancy with no thought to its use to society.  I don’t expect altruism- the usefulness of things to society has a direct link to how much society will pay for them.

“Massive debts will discourage students from attending university.”

Better to say “some” students will be discouraged- a massive debt isn’t a massive issue if, for example:

a) the repayment terms on it are highly favourable despite its size, you don’t have to repay it if you don’t achieve the higher income you were aspiring for & it doesn’t affect your ability to get further credit elsewhere or

b) it’s only massive relative to your current income, not relative to say, the income of graduates in your field

Certainly costs (financed by debt in this case) are a discouragement, but if someone does not believe that the cost of their degree is worth paying, then perhaps they should think twice before pursuing it?  I don’t think that putting a cost on something is a bad thing, unless that cost is not commensurate with that thing’s value.

I’ve heard a counter-argument that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more debt averse than their peers.  This is then used to argue against higher fees.  Surely the argument should be used to validate greater investment in economic learning for pupils from such backgrounds?

If students were taught about debt, what it is, what it means, then perhaps they’d not see it as such a problem.  Debt is not a problem a priori.  Debt aversion a priori is a problem, since debt is a necessary part of our economy.  When buying a house, the price is generally much higher than the income or capital of a given buyer, so they borrow in order to finance the purchase.  This isn’t a problem if their income (or expected future income) validates their investment.  Indeed it may well be a good investment if house prices increase.  It’s ironic that students are now marching about being “saddled” with debt, when so many people were happily saddling themselves with debts that were actually a problem during the housing crisis.  Why were they a problem?  Even taking house price bubbles aside, or people living beyond their means, the real reason these loans became a massive problem was because the terms of the contracts were very unfavourable (e.g. very high rates of interest, lose your home if you default on a repayment etc.)  If those mortgages had had a clause saying “repayments are always a percentage of your income” then foreclosure wouldn’t have been an issue.  A better understanding of finance would (one can hope) allow more informed decision making with regards to debt.

Taking reforms to current education aside, currently students who have gone through school to A2 have a choice- they can choose to enter the workforce, progressing their career through developing experience and making contacts or they can choose to pursue higher education.  I think it is unfortunate that in recent years the former option has been given such short thrift.  The recurring theme from graduates in today’s job market is that employers are looking for valid experience more than “just” a degree- because so many people have one.  The drive for more university students has diluted the value of a degree (think of it as degree inflation), which is bad enough, but what’s worse is its effect on the employability of non-degree pupils.  A degree is increasingly pre-requisite for low-middle range administrative and clerical jobs- how is that a good return on investment?  Equally valid- many professions now offer career paths & training that do not require a degree- such as becoming a solicitor.  It is a shame these alternate routes are not given similar pride of place in discussions of education.  These days it is increasingly the case that candidates “need” a degree, but I argue that such is to conflate the idea of a degree with a “basic” education.

So in summary (tl;dr)- not all education should be free, not all debt is a problem & not all careers require a degree.  Society should subsidise education that returns value to society; people should be willing to accept the costs of their choices.  The introduction of a link between employability and the cost of education, whether higher or otherwise, should allow the value to society to subsidise the cost to the individual.

The problem with education is that people are asking, “How can make this [broken] system affordable?” instead of asking “what system would be [most] worth paying for?”




4 responses

9 12 2010

Well written, I hope some people will actually read it and take something out of it.

10 12 2010
Graham ROberts

Hi Gareth:

I agree by-and-large with what you have stated above. Without going to the irresponsible extreme of saying something along the lines of “debt is just a number”, with regards to the current student loans system, it could be argued that this is ultimately what it is. Indeed, I believe you have touched on this when you stated that student debt as it stands is unlikely to be a huge disincentive to some as it does not effect you getting credit elsewhere, is paid back under very agreeable terms and, like you said, if you never reach the upper banding of pay thresholds for repayment, in theory you will never need to pay it back. Thus, a better understanding of finance should not deter those that wish to study for a qualification that will improve their quality of life in the future. Some have said to me [not verbatim] how not everyone goes to university to increase their earning potential in the future. I agree, not everyone is the same, some people do go for life experience, to move away from the family home etc. However, the price that one is willing to pay for this is determined by the individual concerned. Taking this argument to an extreme (yet an extreme that demonstrates a valid point) a colleague pointed out how people are now getting very concerned and protesting over their “right” to spend the majority of their prospective university career gaining life experience – by which he means getting drunk etc before almost incidentally getting a degree at the end. Again, this argument is largely polemic but how many people actually obtain upper second class degrees or firsts compared to 2.2s and below? The answer, according to one internet source is 10.6% firsts and 44.3% 2.1s. So, considerably less than 50% of graduates achieve a degree classification that will allow them to get onto a majority of corporate training programs – this is before we even get onto discussing the validity of the subject being studied.

It would be naive to argue that as British citizens (or as Europeans) that we live in a complete meritocracy. Ultimately some are more privileged than others. Is that fair? Probably not. However that is how it is. The student finance system however, does go some way to enable students to finance their education on a buy now, pay later scheme of sorts on very agreeable terms. Thus if you are from a less fortunate background and want to do a degree and then become a teacher (4 years) it will cost under the proposed system £36k. Teachers start on a salary of £22k and this rises at approximately £1k per year prior to any promotions/other responsibilities and associated increase in remuneration falling into place. In approximately 5 years a teacher has the potential to be earning close to £30k.

If a student wants to study Norsk Culture at undergraduate and then masters level, it will cost £36k. I am not deriding such a choice. However, if the student studying this calculates that this is a worthwhile degree in terms of future emolument prospects then the fee should not be a disincentive as the buy now, pay later system is still in place. If the student thinks that the life experience that enrolling on such a course provides is worth £36k then again the fee should not be disincentive as the buy now, pay later system is still in place. If a combination of the two has a bearing on this decision making then the fee should not be a disincentive as, you guessed it, the buy now, pay later scheme is still in place.

Thus, in my opinion the fee hike is going to do little to diminish the number of students taking up places on degree courses that are not so closely aligned with industry and thereby earnings potential and this in itself is a problem. In many ways perhaps it could be argued that over the course of the last ten or so years students have been going to university more as a rite-of-passage than for other reasons. Students are currently protesting to keep their right to do this, yet surely people should be looking more closely at the reasons for these cuts and hikes in expenditure and taxation (of sorts) – irresponsible public and private spending in the first instance. Perhaps if people engaged in more calculated and logical decision making when choosing to go to university (or not) there wouldn’t be such a huge funding void that universities and the government are now trying to fill.
Unfortunately, as discussed, I do not see that the fee hike will be a disincentive to most as paying for the cost of your course is spread over years and happens considerably long after the event of causation. If however it makes people think twice, this can only be a good thing, can’t it?

10 12 2010

Thoroughly agree with a lot of what you say here, particularly with regards to the importance of teaching things like law, citizenship, politics and economics or at least personal financing to everyone to a good level because these things will always be needed to be an engaged member of society. Things like science and maths are also very important but personally I would say are generally not probably used as much.

the idea of using the job market to show what degrees society is a very interesting one as I was discussing with someone how you would work out what society needs and therefore should fund.
one thing I might say is that the value of degrees doesn’t just lie in employability for me. I greatly value my degree for the ways of thinking it has taught me and all the things I feel I have learnt about myself, society and the world. And I do not mean life experience of being a uni student (although without it I doubt I would now be living completely independently outside of the parental home) I mean what i’ve learnt about independent thinking, morality and aspects of society that my particular degree in politics and sociology provided. And I therefore think similar degrees are of value for that reason. However ideally I suppose everyone would be taught some of these things, at least critical thinking for example, at a lower and universal level so that the whole of society could be more involved in the debates and in control of their own development.
As it is though, with the affordable, income way in which tuition fees are paid back I feel my degree is allready worth what I have got out of it before it has even got me to a career.
I believe the same applies for the recently passed policies surrounding the rise; once people understand how much they would pay back per income rather than just seeing a frightening large number labled ‘debt’ they may feel the degree is easily worth that and if not how much do they want it?

11 12 2010

Yes I agree. The only thing I think about the “added value” of a degree is that, since it isn’t necessarily of benefit to society, but more to the individual, it shouldn’t be publicly funded. I certainly gained a great deal of personal development from higher education, but I don’t believe I deserve money for that. As you say, hopefully the thinking skills could be taught at a lower level.

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