• Why education may be over-rated

    by  • September 11, 2012 • Features • 2 Comments

    A recent paper from Britain’s Fiscal Studies journal has some sobering reading for people who think that education alone can solve the problem of how to create more opportunities and greater social mobility for all.

    Looking at the UK’s massive rise in the number of people getting degrees, it points out that most of the extra people doing degrees have come from the top fifth of the population; the number of people with degrees in the bottom fifth only rose from 6% to 9%.

    Second, the study shows that people with degrees have started to earn far, far more than non-qualified people in recent decades.

    “Putting these two together (more education for people from richer backgrounds and an increase in the pay-off to this education) implies increasing within-generation inequality. By reinforcing already existing inequalities from the previous generation, this has hindered social mobility.”

    Now, this story isn’t exactly the same in New Zealand, where the earnings gap between qualified and non-qualified people is extremely low by world standards. But the wealthiest have benefited most from the expansion of tertiary education, here as elsewhere.

    This doesn’t mean that expansion was a bad idea; in fact, it was probably essential. But, as with many things, it has been badly handled; and – unsurprisingly – this investment in opportunity has failed to help many of the families it was designed to assist. We have instead a self-reinforcing educational elite, what Colin James calls a privileged group or class, bequeathing their educational advantage to their children.

    That’s not to say that education is never a vehicle for opportunity and mobility. Of course it sometimes is. But only if you do it right – and just increasing the number of university places is not doing it right.

    Max Rashbrooke


    Max is an author, academic and journalist working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues. Sign up to Max's mailing list.

    2 Responses to Why education may be over-rated

    1. Gerald Tait
      October 5, 2012 at 4:53 am

      If you read “Progress & Poverty’ by Henry George he explains in chapter fifteen on page 120 of the condensed version by the Hogarth Press why better education is not the answer.

    2. Gerald Tait
      October 5, 2012 at 5:05 am

      Further to my previous comment, I have copied part of chapter 15 of Progress and Poverty by Henry George.
      Chapter XV Examination of some proposed remedies

      The remedy to which our conclusions point is at once radical and simple – so radical that, on the one side, it will not be fairly considered so long as any faith remains in the efficacy of less caustic measures; so simple that, on the other side, its real efficacy and comprehensiveness are likely to be overlooked, until the effect of more elaborate measures is estimated. There are many persons who still retain a comfortable belief that material progress will ultimately extirpate poverty, and there are many who look to prudential restraint upon the increase of population as the most efficacious means; but the fallacy of these views has already been sufficiently shown.
      Let us now consider what may be hoped for from: 1. Greater economy in government; 2. Improved habits of industry and thrift and better education of the working classes; 3. Combinations of workmen for the advance of wages; 4. Cooperation of labour and capital; 5. Governmental direction and interference; 6. A more general distribution of land.
      [edit]Greater economy in government
      Social distress is largely attributed to the immense burdens that existing governments impose – the great debts, the military and naval establishments, the extravagance that is characteristic of republican as well as of monarchical rulers, and especially characteristic of the administration of great cities. Now there seems to be an evident connection between the immense sums thus taken from the people and the privations of the lower classes, and it is upon a superficial view natural to suppose that a reduction in the enormous burdens thus uselessly imposed would make it easier for the poorest to get a living. But a consideration of the matter in the light of the economic principles heretofore traced out will show that this would not be the effect. A reduction in the amount taken from the aggregate produce of a community by taxation would be simply equivalent to an increase in the power of net production. It would in effect add to the productive power of labour just as do the increasing density of population and improvement in the arts. And as the advantage in the one case goes, and must go, to the owners of land in increased rent, so would the advantage in the other.
      The condition of those who live by their labour would ultimately not be improved. A dim consciousness of this pervades the masses. Those who have nothing but their labour care little about the prodigality of government, and in many cases are disposed to look upon it as a good thing – “furnishing employment,” or “putting money in circulation.” Let me be clearly understood. I do not say that governmental economy is not desirable, but simply that reduction in the expenses of government can have no direct effect in extirpating poverty and increasing wages, so long as land is monopolized.
      Although this is true, yet even with sole reference to the interests of the lowest class no effort should be spared to keep down useless expenditures. The more complex and extravagant government becomes, the more it becomes a power distinct from and independent of the people, the greater is the difficulty of bringing questions of real public policy to a popular decision. So great is the amount of money in politics, so large are the personal interests involved, that the average voter with his prejudices, party feelings and general notions, gives but little consideration to the fundamental questions of government. Were this not the case, so many hoary abuses could not have survived nor could so many new ones have been added. Anything that tends to make government simple and inexpensive tends to put it under control of the people and to bring questions of real importance to the front. But no reduction in the expenses of government can of itself cure or mitigate the evils that arise from a constant tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth.
      [edit]Improved habits of industry and thrift
      There is and always has been a widespread belief among the more comfortable classes that the poverty and suffering of the masses are due to their lack of industry, frugality and intelligence. This belief, which at once soothes the sense of nobility and flatters by its suggestion of superiority, is but natural for those who can trace their own better circumstances to the superior industry and frugality that gave them a start, and to the superior intelligence that enabled them to take advantage of every opportunity.
      But whoever has grasped the laws of the distribution of wealth, as in previous chapters they have been traced out, will see the mistake in this notion. For as soon as land acquires a value, wages, as we have seen, do not depend upon the real earnings or product of labour, but upon what is left to labour after rent is taken out; and when land is all monopolized, rent must drive wages down to the point at which the poorest paid class will be just able to live. Thus wages are forced to a minimum fixed by what is called the standard of comfort – that is, the amount of necessaries and comforts which habit leads the working-classes to demand as the lowest that they will accept. This being the case, industry, skill, frugality and intelligence can only avail the individual in so far as they are superior to the general level – just as in a race, speed can only avail the runner in so far as it exceeds that of his competitors. If one man work harder, or with superior skill or intelligence than ordinary, he will get ahead; but if the average of industry, skill, or intelligence is brought up to the higher point, the increased intensity of application will secure but the old rate of wages, and he who would get ahead must work harder still.
      One individual may save money from his wages, and many poor families might be made more comfortable by being taught to prepare cheap dishes. But if the working classes generally came to live in that way, wages would ultimately fall in proportion, and whoever wished to get ahead by the practice of economy, or to mitigate poverty by teaching it, would be compelled to devise some still cheaper mode of keeping soul and body together. If, under existing conditions, American mechanics would come down to the Chinese standard of living, they would ultimately have to come down to the Chinese standard of wages; or if English labourers would content themselves with the rice diet and scanty clothing of the Bengalee, labour would soon be as ill-paid in England as in Bengal. The introduction of the potato into Ireland was expected to improve the condition of the poorer classes, by increasing the difference between the wages they received and the cost of their living. The consequences that did ensue were a rise of rent and a lowering of wages and, with the potato blight, there followed the ravages of famine among a population that had already reduced its standard of comfort so low that the next Step was starvation.
      And so if one individual work more hours than the average, he will increase his wages; but the wages of all cannot be increased in that way. In occupations where working hours are long, wages are not higher than where working hours are shorter; generally the reverse, for the longer the working day, the more helpless does the labourer become – the less time has he to look around him and develop other powers than those called forth by his work; the less becomes his ability to change his occupation or to take advantage of circumstances. And so the individual workman who gets his wife and children to assist him may thus increase his income; but in occupations where it has become habitual for the wife and children of the labourer to supplement his work, the wages earned by the whole family do not on the average exceed those of the head of the family in occupations where it is usual for him only to work.
      [edit]Better education
      As to the effects of education, it is evident that intelligence, which is or should be the aim of education, until it induces and enables the masses to discover and remove the cause of the unequal distribution of wealth, can only operate upon wages by increasing the effective power of labour. It has the same effect as increased skill or industry. And it can only raise the wages of the individual in so far as it renders him superior to others. When to read and write were rare accomplishments, a clerk commanded high respect and large wages, but now the ability to read and write has become so nearly universal as to give no advantage. The diffusion of intelligence, except as it may make men discontented with the state of things that condemns producers to a life of toil while non-producers loll in luxury, cannot tend to raise wages generally, or in any way improve the condition of the lowest class.
      Greater industry and skill, greater prudence and a higher intelligence are, as a rule, found associated with a better material condition of the working-classes; but that this is effect, not cause, is shown by the relation of the facts. Wherever the material condition of the labouring classes has been improved, improvement in their personal qualities has followed, and wherever their material condition has been depressed, deterioration in these qualities has been the result.
      The fact is that the qualities that raise man above the animal are superimposed on those he shares with the animal, and that it is only as he is relieved from the wants of his animal nature that his intellectual and moral nature can grow. Compel a man to drudgery for the necessities of animal existence, and he will lose the incentive to industry – the progenitor of skill – and will do only what he is forced to do. Make his condition such that it cannot be much worse, while there is little hope that anything he can do will make it much better, and he will cease to look beyond the day.
      It is true that improvement in the material condition of a people or class may not show immediately in mental and moral improvement. Increased wages may at first be taken out in idleness and dissipation. But they will ultimately bring increased industry, skill, intelligence and thrift. Comparisons between different countries; between different classes in the same country; between the same people at different periods; and between the same people when their conditions are changed by emigration, show as an invariable result that the personal qualities of which we are speaking appear as material conditions are improved, and disappear as material conditions are depressed. To make people industrious, prudent, skilful, and intelligent, they must be relieved from want. If you would have the slave show the virtues of the freeman, you must first make him free.
      [edit]Combinations of workmen
      To raise wages in particular industries or occupations, which is all that any combination of workmen yet made has been equal to attempting, is manifestly a task the difficulty of which progressively increases. For the higher are wages of any particular kind raised above their normal level with other wages, the stronger are the tendencies to bring them back. All that trades unions can do in the way of raising wages, even when supporting each other, is comparatively little and that little moreover i

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