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February 13, 2010


Trevor Brown

Imagine a UK where 95% of the population has a Phd.

What would change?

There would be the same stock of jobs and houses to fill, the same lousy unrepresentative system of government sitting near the top of the social pyramid

Education is a game of musical chairs which has only one useful outcome. It helps the middle class define its suitability for the relatively small number of 'good jobs'.


There is a fifth possibility: that the target strategy for higher education is unravelling; that the cuts are being imposed for political rather than economic reasons.

It makes no sense to declare that an arbitrary percentage of young people should study at university. The ideal number of students is determined by the economic and cultural benefit that is generated. However, once government declares such a target, it is difficult for them to admit that the idea was silly. Cutting university funds on "economic grounds" gives policy makers the opportunity to revise their strategy without owning up to failure. Thus we have proposals for two year degrees, the end of the summer break, more part time education etc. Some of these suggestions are worthy, others may be attempts to paper over strategy cracks.

David Friedman

"The government is focusing on short-term deficits, without paying any heed to longer-term revenues. This is just economically illiterate."

On the contrary--it's economically literate. In order for long term planning to be rational, you need secure property rights--you have to be reasonably sure of collecting the future benefit for which you have made present sacrifices. Politicians have very insecure property rights in their political "property," so it is perfectly rational for them to focus on short term political costs and benefits.

Tim Worstall

I would have gone for 1) as the explanation if it weren't for Daivid, once again, educating me.

Tim Worstall

All I need now is someone to teach me to spell of course....


This is because lower investment in human capital means that people will earn less in future - either because they were denied a university place or because they got a worse education at university. This will mean lower future tax revenues.

Precisely, Chris.

Tom Hannah

The Government should conduct an experiment: give away a thousand degree certificates to under-privileged people. They can become a control group. Their progress can be tracked and we can find out whether it is improved knowledge and skills, or ownership of a certificate which brings the advantage.

David Friedman

" Their progress can be tracked and we can find out whether it is improved knowledge and skills, or ownership of a certificate which brings the advantage."

That doesn't let you distinguish your first possibility from a (plausible) third--that getting the degree is evidence of characteristics that the people who got it already had. Filtering.


What if the degrees were given out to middle class, nicely accented people and this group was tracked? If there's little difference in outcomes for this group and for real graduates, it would suggest that other factors are in play other than education. If there's a real difference, that's a win for the universities. But we'd have to decide what counts as a good or poor outcome.


The best story i read about this was for governments to reduce the length of time for university courses, which would reduce the cost and get people to work quicker and in the UK this would serve to prevent students from running up such large student loans.

Dave Newman

Actually, the quickest way to improve human capital is to set two 100% targets.

1. Everyone has to get a vocational qualification by the time they leave school of college (VCE, HND, BTEC etc.) in something that is of immediate demand in the economy.

That quickly meets skill needs, but, of course, will go out of date as the skill needs change. So then:

2. At some time during their lives, everyone does a university course, so that they can learn how to learn anything. This should have done the equivalent of 3 years full-time work or other experience outside school before they go to university.

After that, we have not just a workforce skilled to meet immediate needs, but a flexible one.

There is a potential third step:

3. Degrees would have expiry dates, unless you refreshed your education like some professional do in CPD. The more powerful your job, the quicker the degree would expire - so Ministers and Permanent Secretaries would have to take exams. to show that they are still qualified to govern.

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