Thursday, November 17, 2011

The education trap

In a post on the Lowy Institute blog, Development: A misplaced emphasis on education?, Danielle Romanes said in part:

The idea of education being a 'trap' is the complete antithesis of conventional development theory. Education is commonly defended in the human development literature as vital to the empowerment of individuals. However, if education precludes a person from economic participation then the opposite of empowerment results. Lacking economic opportunities for social contribution, self-reliance and even survival, the individual ends up deprived of self-worth.

Her post focuses on Papua New Guinea and includes a link to a post by Martyn Namorong on his experience. Again I quote:

The system of education in this country (Papua New Guinea) is a failure trap. It is supposed to groom Papua New Guineans but all it does is it produces a lot of failures. In grade 8 ten thousands get thrown out, in grade 10 and 12 thousands more fall through the crack in the system. This is the failure trap. Students spend much of their lives learning about ideas in arts, science and mathematics and are not prepared for both the cash economy and the subsistence economy. I my case, I regret going to medical school because now I am just an unskilled person. I am definitely not skilled to survive in the savannah of East TransFly nor do I have formal qualifications to be recognised in the cash economy. Thus by default I sell betel nut on the street like many other disenfranchised people.

I was interested in Danielle's argument and in Martyn's story of his own experiences because they crystallised something that I had been musing over, what I had been calling in my own mind the education fallacy. My thinking was largely set in an Australian context, but the Romanes/Namarong posts provide a vivid illustration from another context.

We all think that education is a good thing, and indeed it is. If education is a good thing, then extra education must be a good thing. However, this does not automatically follow. If the extra education is misdirected, if it is then enforced through a variety of narrow performance measures, the results may be quite negative.

Consider, as an Australian example, the weighting placed on this country's relative performance in international rankings in literacy and numeracy. Moves up or down the pecking order gain headlines and affect local policy and performance measures. However, there is no evidence that I know of to suggest that such movements actually have any substantive meaning.

Consider, as a second Australian example, the length of time spent in the education system. Time devoted to "full time" study has exploded. I have put full time in inverted commas for reasons that I will explain in a moment. 

School used to finish at year nine for the majority of students, year eleven for those going on to Teachers' College or University. Teachers' College was two years, most university courses were three years. By 21, the great bulk of young people were in the full time work force. Since then, we have added time to every link in the education chain. We have also increased the proportion of the population passing to the next stage. We have added in a whole set of links as credentialism proliferated.

GPs used to complete their initial studies as early as twenty one, a specialist twenty six. Today the equivalent ages are around twenty five and thirty two or thirty three. This process has been replicated across the workforce.

In What was it all for? (Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1, Decline of the professions in Australia, Sunday Essay - What was it all for? part 2), Professor Don Aitkin argued that the expansion of school and university education from the 1950s was one of the great Australian achievements. I think that he's right. However, I doubt that the subsequent process has actually had much in the way of benefits.

Earlier, I put the words "full time" in inverted commas. One of the paradoxes of educational expansion is that the age of entry to the world of work probably hasn't changed all that much, although the nature of work may have.

I don't have proper statistics to support this claim. However, my impression is that the proportion of school children working is much higher than it was thirty years ago. I base this on a comparison between my own experience and that of my daughters' age cohorts. Certainly, the proportion of university students working part time has exploded. There is a chicken and egg issue here. In a way, we almost had to increase formal study time because the actual time available for study in any period has declined.

The paradoxes don't end there. Youth unemployment has been a problem in Australia since the 1970s. One of the repeated justifications for increased education has been the need to give young people better skills so that they can get jobs. However, since the 1970s the proportion of long term unemployed young people and especially young men has increased.

This is normally explained in terms of structural adjustment in the economy. It's a little more complex than that.

Full time jobs that used to be filled by school leavers and especially early school leavers have declined.

One factor in this has been the rise in competition from those still in education. Work has been restructured to facilitate part time employment. The once full time entry level position has diminished, replaced by part time positions occupied by birds of passage. A second factor has been the rise in credentialism; the proportion of jobs requiring some form of "ticket" has exploded.

I sometimes think that it's all become a bit of a self-fulfilling mess in which a problem partially created by education then requires more education to solve, but that then creates its own problems. The education industry has a vested interest in the whole process because it is central to the growth in student numbers on which their planning is based. If I'm in any way right, Australia would appear to face its own education trap.   


Evan said...

We aren't allowed to say that IT was used to do away with entry level positions because we get called names (Luddite and so on).

Imagine a sprint. We decide to study the winners. We note the winners have shoes and the losers don't. Imagine there is perfect correlation. We conclude that if we give everyone shoes then everyone can win. Replace shoes with credentials.

The privileging of cerebral knowledge is another problem that doesn't get mentioned. The idea that people and their learning reduce to thought results in much unnecessary suffering and waste of people's talents and lives I think.

It seems pretty clear that education was used as an attempt to absorb technological unemployment and by employers to transfer the reponsibility of training workers to government.

Winton Bates said...

I think there is plenty of evidence that lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills is a big handicap in a modern economy. A poignant example is that to get a job as a cleaner it is necessary to be able to read the labels on the bottles of detergents etc.

I agree that there is a problem of people spending a lot of their life obtaining qualifications that aren't worth anything. Some of this just reflects the nature of investment in education. Farmers face a similar problem in planting fruit trees. The returns on the investment look promising when the investment is made, but by the time the trees are bearing fruit there may be a glut in the market.

Added to this we have the problem of government assistance for people undertaking higher education diverting some young people away from earning a living.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, I really liked your sprint analogy. You have rather neatly captured a very important point.

I think that I agree with you on IT too, and certainly with you last sentence. I will pick your points up in a later post.

Evan said...

Thanks Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree with your first para, Winton.

I have a real problem with the idea of investment in education in part for the reasons rather neatly captured in Evan's analogy. My difficulty lies in the way that current arguments including their formulation in policy actually confuses multiple things.

Nathan Lindorff said...

Is the problem not so much that everyone is going to uni, but not really spending the time to work out what you want, and if you need a degree to get there? I graduated about 2003, and it seemed for most high school leavers the done thing was to go to uni, even if they weren't sure what they really wanted.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that that's a fair comment Nathan, but also a complicated one.

To my mind, the proliferation of narrow vocational degrees, the emphasis on degrees for what were once trade or craft qualifications or on the job learning, forces kids to make narrower vocational choices. That's part of your point, of course.

Take, as an example, paramedics. Do they as a group need a uni degree? Creeping credentialism means that nurses need degrees. Because of pressures on doctors, nurses are moving into territory once the province of medicos. The work once done by nurses is now done in part by nursing aides who in turn are going through the same process. It's not clear to me just how much return we are getting from all this extra training.

My daughters are 24 and 22 and have both changed their minds about their careers several times while at Uni. One switched unis as a consequence, the other has presently decided not to do honours. Her interests now lie outside he course as such.

Again, that links to your points.