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Myths about education and economic growth

June 18, 2009

When I was a young Media Studies undergraduate my peers and I worried about the ‘usefulness’ of our degree: useful in the sense that we were concerned about what sort of job we would be eligible for after graduation. As it happens we need not have fretted. As one survey has shown, Media Studies graduates are among the ‘most employable’ in the UK. And while few go into jobs directly related to their studies (only 1 in 5), this is in line with graduates from other disciplines.

education_and_economyThere are clearly more Media Studies graduates than there are jobs in the media, which makes it all the more important that the discipline gives students a good general education, with plenty of ‘transferable skills’ (in the jargon). In the past it seems to have achieved this with relative success, which probably accounts for the employability of its graduates across a range of jobs and careers.

Now Media Studies is under pressure to sell-out to a skills agenda and a narrow vocationalism that will serve its graduates rather badly. In this it’s not alone. The skills agenda is reaching into all sorts of disciplines and undermining their academic integrity. Media Studies is perhaps especially vulnerable because of its assumed proximity to the creative industries, the irony being that Media Studies began its academic career in a critical relation to those industries. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci it aspired to grow ‘organic intellectuals’ now its purpose, it seems, is to produce ‘industry ready graduates’.

The skills agenda is part and parcel of the charge to make higher education subservient to industry and the economy (mentioned in the previous post) and summed up by Tony Blair thus: ‘Education … is the centre of economic policy making for the future’. But the consensus that educational policy is an effective tool for delivering prosperity and increasing rates of economic growth has been questioned by Prof. Alison Wolf of King’s College London. Wolf specialises in the relationship between education and the labour market, with a particular interest in universities, training and skills policy and she argues here:

We are told that in a “knowledge economy,” a country needs ever more graduates and formal qualifications to stay competitive. But education simply does not deliver economic growth the way our politicians – and businessmen – believe: more education in does not mean more growth out. Worse, the education policies that follow from current beliefs have serious negative consequences for opportunities for young people and the quality of education itself.

Wolf points out that ‘large international studies often find a negative relationship between education and growth rates’. Egypt is a classic example of this. Between 1970 and 1998, its primary school enrollment rates grew to over 90%, secondary schooling soared from 32% to 75%, and university education doubled. Egypt started the period as the world’s 47th poorest country; it ended the period as the 48th poorest. On the other hand there’s Switzerland: ‘one of the richest countries in the world for a century – and not because of its natural resources. Yet it has the lowest rate of university attendance in Western Europe’.

But it’s the idiocy of ‘official’ thinking with regards skills and training that Wolf is most scathing about. She points out that even though Ministers and policy-makers frequently talk about ‘training’ as if it can deliver significantly higher skills, the reality is that the skills that command a premium take a long time and great effort to acquire. She refers to the ‘Lewis Carroll logic‘ of policy in this area:

At the very end of 2006, the ‘Leitch Review of Skills’ hit the scales, courtesy of H M Treasury.  It weighs in at 148 pages , with a plethora of recommendations for legislation, expenditure increases, administrative reorganisation, quango creation, and, of course, a new set of quantitative targets. But if you want the essence of Leitch, a two-sentence quote tells you all you really need to know. History tells us that no one can predict with any accuracy future occupational skills. The Review is clear that skill demands will increase at every single level. Read those two sentences, carefully. Then read them again (bearing in mind that they are juxtaposed in exactly this way in the original.) Welcome to the strange land of skills policy, circa 2007, where contradictory sentences coexist happily and words mean the exact opposite of what they seem.

Education policy is determined by the belief that more qualifications are the key to prosperity. Qualified workers – those with degrees – have traditionally earned more than less qualified workers. So if more people get qualifications they will earn as much those that currently have them and we will all be commensurately richer. Right? Wolf explodes this myth, pointing out that we’ve reached the stage where universities are producing far more graduates than the labour force can provide for. And study after study shows that the number of ‘over-qualified’ workers has been increasing because as the number of graduates increase so does the number of ‘graduate’ jobs – jobs that in truth require no more qualifications and skills than they did when performed by non-graduates. Government appears to believe that:

We get educated and trained, apparently, in order to get richer. This means we can afford to pay more and more people to get educated and trained for longer, with higher-level qualifications. That means we can be richer still. And having got richer still, we can pay for yet more education and training. Why? Well, to get richer still, of course, pay for more education and training, get richer, pay for more, and so on – and on and on?

But could it be, as Wolf suggests, that it’s not education that stimulates growth but growth that stimulates the demand for education. So what happens when economies contract? Isn’t that a pressing question at this time?

Whatever the case, Wolf argues that seeing education as the ‘engine of economic growth’ has ‘narrowed the way we think about social policy. It has also narrowed – dismally and progressively – our vision of education itself.’ In a recent article for Adult Learner she points out just how impoverished official thinking is on the purpose of education when compared to the ambitions of actual learners:

It is perfectly reasonable to see the development of economically valuable skills as one of the major purposes of education. Students and their families certainly do; many adult learners are similarly, and very reasonably, keen to acquire skills with labour market value. However, individuals tend to have a rather longer-term and more sophisticated view of what such skills might be than have recent UK policy-makers. They also, as we know from myriad studies, have objectives over and above increasing their future earnings.

In fact Wolf suggests even civil servants and ministers responsible for education policy have little faith in it:

Young people… may not have a detailed grasp of labour market trends but they are aware of general ones. Would you advise your own 17-year-old to abandon general education in favour of a highly specific vocational training programme which leads directly into a highly specific trade – and only into it – especially when that trade itself may disappear tomorrow? No – and nor did the civil servants and ministers who somehow persuaded themselves that everyone else should do so.

If I was a media studies student graduating this summer into a competitive job market where employment is scarce and work in the media rarer still, I’d prefer to leave with a good comprehensive education and a set of broad transferrable skills that I could put to use in a variety of careers. Narrow vocationalism and specific skills training grossly limit graduate employment options and are a crass attempt to second guess the job market. I’d also want to feel assured that my degree had an academic integrity. But as Alison Wolf points out that higher education’s association with economic policy promotes a fixation for quantitative indicators. These are measures of success that can be easily counted, and the attention to these has swept aside questions of quality.

The economy and economic policy is a shambles. It’s no coincidence then that education is in a similar state given that it has been shackled to the same neo-liberal thinking that has informed economic policy for over 25 years. The establishment of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is a depressing indication that despite the economic crisis and the discrediting of the neo-liberal project, the UK government is still using old road maps to negotiate a new economic terrain.

Alison Wolf’s book is, Does Education Matter? Myths About Education and Economic Growth

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2009 1:24 pm

    It is said in India that ‘saraswati’ ( the goddess of learning) is inimical to ‘laxmi’ ( the goddess of riches).

  2. Rab permalink*
    June 18, 2009 2:40 pm

    Thanks for your reply krsnakhandelwal. Very much appreciated.

  3. The Jackson Four permalink
    June 27, 2009 5:47 pm

    It’s not a degree

    It’s a course.

    And education is for life, not for a job

  4. Rab permalink*
    June 27, 2009 6:26 pm

    ‘Education is for life, not for a job’

    There’s got to be a bumper-sticker in that…

  5. July 1, 2009 5:22 pm

    I came across this in my net wanderings. Seems suitably impenetrable at first glance, but he is an old lefty and it’s title(‘The State and the Contradictions of the Knowledge-Driven Economy’) seems close to your interests, so I wondered if you might want to glance at it.

    http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/jessop-state-and-contradictions.pdf

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