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.