Why more isn't always better when it comes to education

Last week hundreds of thousands of teenagers received their A-level results and this week hundreds of thousands of others are anxiously awaiting their GCSEs. For many, these results will seem a life-changing experience.

Their chances of acquiring a place in the next academic competition or, in some cases, an offer of employment, will indeed be affected by how well they have done.

Often, though, kids over-estimate the significance of their results. There is more to life than exams. More fundamentally, there is more to life than academic study.

With the new academic year about to begin, we need to ask whether the effort leading up to these exams has made the students better equipped for life and for work.

It is not enough to acknowledge that those who do best in exams tend to do best in the job market. After all, if what is being achieved is merely a relative placing with no relationship to worthwhile skills or attainment, then we might as well organise a national egg and spoon race instead.

Of course, there is more to education than mere financial success. Still, money matters.

At the latest count, the UK government’s spending on education exceeded £80bn a year, or 11pc of the total. In addition, many parents pay out a huge amount and now, at the tertiary level, students do as well, as they often accumulate large debts during their years of further studies at “uni”. Total spending on education is probably about 6pc of GDP.


Ben Stevenson, Florence Harrison, Taiga Maneus and Joe Hall celebrate their A-level results at The Sheffield College, Hillsborough campus in Sheffield

Ben Stevenson, Florence Harrison, Taiga Maneus and Joe Hall celebrate their A-level results at The Sheffield College, Hillsborough campus in Sheffield

Credit:
PA

Almost everyone seems to believe that extra expenditure on education is a good thing. The economic evidence to back up this presumption is twofold: in general, countries with a higher average educational attainment also have a higher level of per capita GDP; within countries, in general, better educated people have a higher level of income. Consequently, it is argued, both individuals themselves and the national economy are enhanced by more education – and, specifically, by education over a longer period.

Yet this conclusion is ill-founded. For a start, just because some education is better than none, does not mean that, beyond some point, more education is always better than less.

Secondly, whether or not individual students or their parents directly pay for it, education does not come free. There is always a cost incurred by somebody.

There is also a significant opportunity cost for the individuals involved, namely whatever else they could have done with the time spent in education.

So, in principle, it is eminently possible for people to undergo too much education. And it is decidedly possible for the type provided to be ill-suited to students’ needs.


A maths exam in progress

The education system needs to adapt to stay relevant in the modern world

One key indication that things may currently be amiss is that the world of education has changed very little at a time when the economy and society have changed profoundly, not least because of the information and communications revolution.

Yet most students experience the same length of school day and the same shape of academic year, including those ludicrously long, school and university holidays; the same reliance on attendance in class and at lectures; and the same importance attached to knowing rather than knowing how to.

In tomorrow’s world, it will be normal for people to have several different occupations over their working life. During their years of education, therefore, what they need to acquire is not so much a skill that is going to last them a lifetime, as a meta-skillset that will enable them to learn new specific skills as life goes on.

It has become common for students to spend some time, both before university and during it, doing various sorts of work experience.

In tomorrow’s world, it will be normal for people to have several different occupations over their working lifeRoger Bootle

This is a good thing. Yet most school and university teachers have little or no experience of the world outside academia.  This is also true of dedicated careers advisers. This makes them badly placed to advise students.

Perhaps teachers and careers advisers also need spells of work experience, not least to help them to see academic studies in perspective.

And, boy, is perspective needed! As an employer, I regularly receive applications from people who have collected umpteen degrees and diplomas – in one recent case, as many as six – with not so much as a brush with the ordinary world of work.

It isn’t just that surplus academic qualifications add no value; I suspect that in many cases they actually subtract it, leading people to develop a set of priorities and attitudes of mind that are inimical to success at work. Many young people today suffer from qualificationitis.

If people want to follow courses merely for their own enjoyment that is fine – as long as they are paying for these themselves.

But the job applicants I see automatically assume, wrongly, that another stamp of academic approval, usually funded publicly or by scholarship, has enhanced their value to society.

We urgently need a national debate about the role of education in
the modern world
Roger Bootle

A large part of the problem derives from the suppression of market forces. Various academic figures have warned that the imposition of charges for university education is discouraging some students from continuing their studies. They have matters completely the wrong way round.

Naturally, provision needs to be made for able and motivated students who lack financial resources. But, that aside, the fact that students are being discouraged from undergoing further education by the adverse relationship between costs and benefits is a sign that the market is working.

The clearest sign of real progress would be if significant numbers of our weaker educational institutions closed down. Markets work not only by rewarding success but also by penalising failure.

We urgently need a national debate about the role of education in the modern world, what the purpose of it is, how long it should go on for, how it can be renewed at later stages in life and how it should be paid for.

This cannot be confined to the so-called experts. Education is much too important to be left to the educationalists.

Roger Bootle is executive chairman of Capital Economics


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