Hollowing out the ivory tower

Alison Wolf tells Tim Black that the now orthodox view of universities as engines of economic growth is making us lose sight of their primary purpose: the pursuit of knowledge.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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‘The idea – which I have to say has affected large numbers of politicians – that you can just give people at university a certificate and, hey presto, they’ll earn this amount more and the country will be x-amount richer has always seemed so bizarre to me that I have to pinch myself that so many apparently rational people believe exactly that.’

Professor Alison Wolf is a breathless speaker – as I discovered while trying to keep up during the course of our interview. But as the author of Does Education Matter? Myths About Education and Economic Growth, and more recently of the government-commissioned Review of Vocational Education, Wolf is certainly worth listening to on the plight of British universities. And nowhere is her insight more valuable than when it comes to tackling what she has called ‘the great secular faith of our age’ – namely, the idea that education is the key to economic growth, swelling both an individual’s bank balance and expanding a nation’s GDP.

There’s no doubt that this is a faith with many followers. And not just among a political class that has long trumpeted, as Tony Blair did in 1997, the importance of ‘education, education, education’. Current critics of the Lib-Con coalition’s higher-education policies, especially with regards to tuition fees, are similarly enchanted by the idea that developing a nation of university graduates is the key to economic growth and individual affluence – or ‘social mobility’, to use current political argot.

For instance, at the annual conference of the University and College Union, general secretary Sally Hunt attacked the funding cuts to the higher-education (HE) sector on the grounds that increasing student numbers ought to be a priority. Quantity definitely matters to Hunt: ‘Since the turn of the century, the UK’s qualification rates have been overtaken by Iceland, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, the US, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.’ Her point was clear enough: Britain needs to get more and more people through the gates of universities and further-education (FE) colleges so as to compete with countries with a similarly large student population. She reasons that it’s only through a proliferation of HE and university qualifications that economies grow and individuals become ‘socially mobile’. It’s on these grounds that Hunt criticises tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance grant for college-goers: ‘[Government ministers] claim their goal is to promote social mobility, but we must judge them by what they do, not what they say. In reality, coalition policy is about putting barriers up, not pulling them down.’

Hunt’s is not an unusual line of criticism. In fact it’s the dominant refrain in the opposition to the coalition’s education funding cuts. As one of the slogans from last winter’s student protests put it, ‘Don’t kill social mobility’. In fact so pervasive is the belief that universities create a vibrant economy full of upwardly mobile degree-holders that the incoming head of the National Union of Students actually seems to think this putative by-product of higher education, increased social mobility, is in fact its purpose: ‘[University] is about social mobility and people changing their lives. The reality is you need that bit of paper [a degree] to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary.’

So does increasing the number of people with degrees amount to a surefire way of increasing the majority’s earnings? Wolf is not convinced. ‘That’s not how it works’, she says. For a start, the fact that graduates have tended to earn more ‘is based on the returns that they’ve brought to people who have graduated about 20 years ago now on average’. So, given the sheer increase in the number of graduates over the past 20 years – from around 600,000 in 1990 to just under two million in 2010 – the value of a degree will have changed. It is no longer an automatic mark of distinction. ‘We don’t actually know what they’re going to be worth today.’

As Wolf explains to me, degrees are of importance to employers ‘all over the world’. They act ‘as a sort of sifting mechanism’, or as she puts it in Does Education Matter?, ‘a way of ranking, screening and selecting’ people. ‘From an employers’ experience’, she continues, ‘while the degree’s not a perfect indicator, it is useful… they’re using it as a basic IQ test, an indication that people can buckle down and work for three years and to some degree, and sometimes very much, for specific skills.’ That’s why ensuring that as many people have a degree as possible, ‘at the expense of quality if necessary’, is counterproductive: ‘The quickest way to halve the value of a degree overnight is to say, “we don’t care about quality anymore, we’re going for quantity”’, notes Wolf.

Then there’s the flipside to the idea that a degree is the motor of social mobility: the belief that an ever-expanding higher-education sector is the engine of economic growth. Wolf calls this ‘simplistic belief’ a ‘supply-side economics solution’. That is, ‘you produce all these skills, pour them into the economy and something magic happens’.

But that’s not true, she argues – even if the education is high quality. ‘We know that pouring out skills is not one of the key ways in which you generate growth. Look at past experiments. Did the Soviet Union become the greatest economy in the world through a combination of planned allocation of resources and making everyone do engineering and science? No, it didn’t. Take a look at some of the successful economies. Look at Switzerland. It has one of the lowest higher-education enrolment rates in the world, yet it has a fantastic economy. If the economy demands skills and you’ve got a decently responsive higher-education system you’ll end up with an equilibrium situation… You don’t generate growth through number of graduates.’

In Does Education Matter?, Wolf illustrates the absurdity of the increase-the-graduates/increase-the-growth logic by reference to the high remuneration of lawyers. That is, given lawyers’ high wages, having more lawyers would surely mean that there are more and more people earning more and more dough, and therefore in total, society is becoming more and more wealthy.

‘[This] would suggest’, she writes, ‘that the fastest way to boost growth would be to send everyone to law school’. Which is clearly ridiculous. In fact, what the high remuneration of lawyers tells us is that we live in a highly regulated society – as opposed to a productive one – which consequently values lawyers. It doesn’t mean that churning out an ever-increasing number of law graduates is the elixir of economic growth. Likewise, Wolf writes, ‘it is no more self-evident that since some education makes some of us richer, more would make more of us richer, than it is that “two aspirin are good” means “five aspirin are better”’.

The wrongheaded belief that you can generate growth simply by increasing the number of graduates has led to the effacement of the structural problems of the economy. In other words, seeking the wrong answers has generated the wrong questions. For example, ‘there tends to be an obsession with how many engineers the UK produces, when the real question ought to be why haven’t we got more engineering industry?’, says Wolf. You don’t have to be a fully signed up economic determinist to recognise that our economic travails cannot be solved through education, education, education.

Wolf’s position is firm. An increase in the quantity of graduates will neither create a dynamic, wealth-producing economy nor will it create the conditions for the emergence of lots of dynamic, wealth-producing individuals. Universities are not what they are currently being cracked up to be. But that leads to another problem. So deeply entrenched is the belief that, to use the words of the 1998 Dearing report, ‘Higher education has become central to the economic wellbeing of nations and individuals’, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall what the purpose of institutions of higher education might be. Their autonomy as academic bodies, in which one ought to be free to pursue an interest in a subject area to a higher level, has been effaced by their thoroughgoing instrumentalisation as drivers of economic growth and social mobility.

Wolf does admit that people have always seen universities as a means to further their career. ‘It wasn’t the case that people used to flock off to university purely in the pursuit of knowledge.’ But she does feel that the balance between its role as an organon of knowledge and its contingent function as a filter for employers has tipped in favour of its ambiguous economic function. ‘In the past, people did think that universities were about religion, that they were about civic virtue, that a civilised country has higher education, has people trying to understand the world, not because that might generate a spin-off company, but because understanding the world was the right thing to do.’

That has changed. The belief that university education has some intrinsic role apart from the economy is no longer held with any conviction by our ruling elite. ‘[Politicians] basically only care about universities in terms of their immediate economic impact’, Wolf says. ‘They still allude to the idea that universities are about more than that but I don’t think the current generation of politicians is doing more than paying lip service to the idea of universities as a place to develop thought and knowledge. Their hearts are in universities as engines of economic growth.’

Such a conception of the role of universities causes problems. Without the idea of a university as a place free from economic interests, a place in which one is at liberty to pursue thought and ideas, any defence of the importance of university education too often plays into the hands of those who would have people pay through the nose for it: after all, if you higher education supposedly helps to lines your pockets, then why should the public pay for it? It’s a lesson that applies not just to philistine politicians but perhaps more so to their social-mobility spouting critics. As Wolf wrote in Does Education Matter?, plenty of people advocate expenditure on university education ‘not because people enjoy education, not because of its contribution to culture and learning, but because it leads to growth’.

Wolf’s spoken lament hits home: ‘We think about universities purely in economic ways and I think that is a great pity.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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