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Quote unquote: Alison Wolf on the economics of education

In Does Education Matter? Alison Wolf attacks, tin the words of the book’s subtitle, “myths about education and economic growth”. Here are a few paragraphs from the Introduction:

From the premise that a full-blown ‘knowledge economy’ is arriving now on our doorsteps, it is easy to slip into prescribing more and more of the raw material which apparently makes this possible: education. And of course it would be stupid to deny that education is central to any modern economy. Imagine the UK today – or the USA, or Greece, japan, Brazil – being run by a population. which is more than go per cent illiterate – the level of eleventh-century England.’ Imagine Microsoft or British Aerospace research and development in the hands of people all of whom had left school after only a primary-school education, or a drug industry dependent on people whose academic training was the intermingled science and alchemy of Newton’s day. Who could doubt that education matters?

But what doesn’t follow is that vast amounts of public. spending on education have been the key determinant of how rich we are today. Nor is it obvious that they will decide how much richer, or poorer, we will be tomorrow. The simple one-way relationship which so entrances our politicians and commentators – education spending in, economic growth out – simply doesn’t exist. Moreover, the larger and more complex the education sector, the less obvious any links to productivity become. Developed countries have now moved well beyond providing basic education. for all, and instead spend more and more on higher education, technical provision, vocational programmes, and adult training.

These are my main subject matter, for they are also the main recent targets of government policies inspired by ambitions for growth. Unfortunately, while an overwhelmingly strong case can be made for the state’s responsibilities in basic education – and, indeed, for the latter’s economic importance – not one of these newer enthusiasms deserves any such.accolade.

Alison Wolf

12 comments to Quote unquote: Alison Wolf on the economics of education

  • ND

    While education does not guarantee economic growth, it is necessary prerequisite for any substancial change.

  • This is not a new issue. I recommend a good book that discusses this issue as well as the history of public education. E. G. West, Education and the State, A study in Political Economy

    The first edition came out in 1965, 2nd in 1970 and the 3rd in 1994. A bonus for the Brits is that it is written from a British perspective, although the 3rd edition has a chapter on the history of the rise of public education in the US. A real eye opener!

  • Della

    It is highly disingenuous of her to compare the 11th century with now. In the 11th century paper was probably unavailable in England, writing implements would be very expensive, the printing press hadn’t been invented, books were very expensive due to the high costs of reproduction, so they would be almost unavailable to an ordinary person. In the 11th century most people would see the skills of reading and writing as a useless expensive hobby.

    One might as well lament the failure of the education system to produce computer programmers in the 1940s.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Tony Lekas

    Fair points of course, and I hugely admire E. G. West and all his works.

    Follow the link I supply in my posting here and you get to my Education Blog. Go to the sidebar of that and you’ll find, if you persist, something called the E. G. West Centre, which is run by James Tooley, and is well worth a sustained look.

    The difference between West and Wolf, I think, aside from their various differences of course, is that Wolf has got her book published as a Penguin Paperback. Maybe this kind of thing shouldn’t matter, but we all know that it does.

    E. G. West did a brilliant maverick job, but the mainstream educators, if they’ve heard of him, classify him under wacko nutters with a huge axe to grind. Wolf is, in this vital respect, different. So it’s well worth reading her as well, but I agree, certainly not instead.

    I do have a small problem though. I haven’t actually read Wolf’s book yet. Just the Introduction.

    I’ll keep everyone posted as I go through it.

  • George Peery

    There is a problem with education, but putting one’s finger on it is more difficult than it seems, imo.

    In my country (the US) and perhaps in Britain as well, considerable resources are being expended on “higher education” for young people who have neither the academic competence nor the inclination for such an educational undertaking.

    On the other hand, advanced countries will eventually go “tits up” – economically speaking – if their citizens cannot offer competent and efficient intellectual “products” in the global marketplace. (Who do you want to hire to write your computer code: a Yank making 40 dollars an hour, or an Indian making one-tenth that?) Just the other day, I read a quite depressing piece on graduates from British secondary schools who are, far too often, essentially illiterate.

    When I was a young American in the 1950s and 60s, it was common for people like me to work very hard to succeed in school. That no longer seems to be the case. From what I read about the U.K., you face a similar problem.

  • R.C. Dean

    A phenomenon that I have encountered in numerous other circumstances may cast light on George Peery’s question.

    People tend to value something approximately the same degree that it has cost them something. If you give away anything for free, I guarantee you will find a stack of them in the nearest trash can, and most of the rest littering the sidewalk. It was obviously worth nothing to you, else why would you give it away, and the recipients treat it accordingly.

    If society gives education away for “free”, without making people pay for it or expecting them to work particularly hard at it, the students will see that society apparently attach no value to it, and will likely do the same.

  • A big missing element is the interactive part of all this country-on-country competition. Who does what when.

    What Japan could do with breakneck education and Westernisation in the 1880s and again in the 1950s was heavily education-based, but also heavily favoured by there not being many other hard-working low-wage Asian countries doing the same thing at that time.

    The law of marginal returns probably works for the nth country that spends more on science-teaching as much for any other case. Science education may not help so much now. Being early into the technical education race is a little different.

    Had Britain spent as heavily on science education early on, for example setting up an elite engineering college in [say] the 1820s instead of 1900, Britain’s 19th-century lead might have increased beyond our current imaginings. France and Prussia set up elite engineering institutes in 1799 and 1801. Imperial College London didn’t appear until 1900, too late to secure what could have been such unassailable technological dominance, so unthreatened by Continental competitors, we might not have felt any need to enter World War I.

    Who knows? If we had set up Imperial in the 1820s, English mathematician Babbage’s 1830s mechanical computer might have seemed worth building, testing and manufacturing fifty years before the predecessor to IBM began tabulating America’s 1890 census results with electro-contacts and punched cards. The census-tabulating contract which gave the initial momentum to the US computer-industry’s still vast lead [with a government-funded procurement project, note].

    Imagine that might-have-been.

  • George Peery

    R.C., I agree with you entirely. As you probably know, American university students only rarely get a “free ride,” financially. Many students must find at least part-time employment to pay for college. I think this is all to the good. I paid all of my childrens’ university fees, and I regret it. I did them no favour.

    Mark, there are many factors besides engineering/technological education that affect a country’s competitiveness in those areas. Japanese students (or so I understand) are terribly bright and hard-working. Too bad their country remains locked in the 19th century when it comes to having an open economy.

  • Absolutely George, many factors indeed. The pull-ahead-by-investing-in-technical-education trick has worked for a few countries [like France, Germany, Japan] but is certainly not the only game in town and may be less of a good idea these days.

    It may even – as you half suggest with your remark about Japanese students – come with a handicap. If the state sets up education institutes to help your country get ahead, it may have two effects:
    [1] Lots more memorisation, cramming and drilling of school students, improving their maths scores at the expense of their intiative and imagination;
    [2] A [recently justified, so strong!] belief that the state can and should pull off the next rescue trick too.

    All the Japanese students I have met have very good memories. Bright? Maybe. Hard-working – yes.

  • Guy Herbert

    Della’s right. There was no point in most people reading and writing in the 11th century, because they could do nothing with it. Those for whom it had a purpose and had the resources–the clergy, ministeriales, merchants, great nobles–did read, though they might put someone else to the hassle of writing.

    There are signs that reading and writing are beginning to decline in the modern world for similar reasons. For substantial numbers of people, it is not worthwhile–too expensive in time and effort–to use such skills, when audiovisual media are quicker to provide what they require.

    Which begs the question: leaving aside the virtue or function of the education concerned, can the state successfully force education on people?

  • Guy Herbert:

    You say:

    “There are signs that reading and writing are beginning to decline in the modern world for similar reasons. For substantial numbers of people, it is not worthwhile–too expensive in time and effort–to use such skills, when audiovisual media are quicker to provide what they require.”

    Clearly rich country welfare policy has something to do with this. All that welfare addicts now need to worry about is being amused. Being productive is not a worry, and surely that can’t last.

    Nevertheless, I sense that you are right, and that there are more substantial “audio-visual” reasons for educational decline, especially at the bottom end of the social scale. In other words, I sense that it is now easier to be an illiterate but productive citizen than it was, say, fifty years ago. But nobody has taken me through the exact detail and logic of this.

    Can you expand on this, and maybe supply links/references to others who have? I want to explore this point at my education blog.

    If you can’t, I’ll just flag up the question anyway.

  • Jon

    Alison Wolf captures one of the dilemmas for policy-makers – do you simply expand education in the hope that increased supply of well-qualified people will lead, automatically, to an increased demand for their skills (Say’s Law)? Or are skills simply a ‘derived demand’ that depend upon the business strategies of employing firms (in other words, demand is more important than supply)? I side firmly with Wolf and agree with the latter.