Friday, 23 July 2010

What benefit from the trebling of university graduates in one generation?

Nobody learns from the history public policy (because public policy is not about making things better – ‘reform’ is merely the excuse).

In the UK we are about to embark on yet another 'reform' (reorganization) of the National Health Service - yet we know it is un-reformable, because reform has been tried repeatedly, and only succeeds in making health services ever more managerially- and politically- dominated. 

(Which is, of course, the real purpose.)  


But I am talking about education here. 

Nobody seems to have noticed that the UK did a *huge* experiment in determining the value of university education when it roughly trebled the proportion of 18 year olds going into degree programs over a period of about 20 years. 

The proportion of college graduates went up from about 15 percent to about 45 percent over less than twenty years. 

Such a massive, seismic change in public policy must surely have produced a vast societal transformation of some kind. 

But it didn't. 


Indeed, except for those who paid for it (parents) nobody has really noticed any difference in the economy, in soceity - except we have subtracted hundreds of thousands more of the most intelligent and highly-motivated young people from the job market for an extra three years, and each of the full time undergraduates has been subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of 4-5K pounds stirling - both of which *must* have caused economic damage. 

So, what about all this relentless propaganda about the economic need for a more highly-educated workforce etc? 

Complete and utter bollix, I am afraid. 

(And I fell for this nonsense, hook line and sinker - - until I eventually came to my senses by learning about IQ and personality differences - . I should have taken more notice of Alison Wolf -


Here are the numbers - for an historical perspective:

In round numbers, there were about 5 percent of the population doing degrees at a UK university in 1950 (there was a higher proportion in Scotland than England) - this approximately trebled in the post-Robbins era up to around 15 percent in the mid 1970s (but I am not sure what proportion were in universities, and what proportion were doing degrees in polytechnics). And from the mid-1970s until now there was a more than three fold increase in the percentage of the population going into in higher education degree programs (with the polytechnics having been renamed as universities, and with many institutions having more than doubled in size of intake). So there was roughly an order of magnitude (5-50 percent) growth in the proportion of the age cohort doing degrees over the sixty year period from 1950-2009.

Numbers mostly from Robert Anderson – British Universities past and present).

I don't know what proportion of these totals would graduate in one year. I guess probably less than a third, because of drop-outs and failures and courses lasting more than three years – so, maybe a quarter of these numbers quoted below would represent annual graduation rates? That's what I will assume.

1861 = 3, 385 English University Students (at this time Scotland had more university students than England) - i.e. under 1000 graduates per year.

1910-11 = 19, 617 EUSs (Scotland and Wales had 6736 and 1375)  - about 5000 graduates per year

1920s = c 48, 000 in Britain – maybe three quarters of them in England? – c 12, 000 graduates per year

1930s = c 50, 000 in Britain - maybe three quarters of them in England?  Still about 12,000 grads per year.

1949 = 85, 000 in Britain - maybe three quarters of them in England? Up to about 21, 000 graduates per year.

1962 – 118, 000 – if three quarters of them in England – then this is about 22, 125 graduates per year. Not much change.

1980 - 282, 960 UK students, correcting with a multiple of 0.75 for England (if about a quarter of the students were in Scotland, Wales and Ulster) the number of English graduates would be about 50, 000 graduates per year – a doubling.

2007/8 – c 2, 400, 000 college students in UK (ref  1 at
 – say 1, 600, 000 in England, say 400, 000 (roughly half a million) English graduates per year...

Huge increase in annual graduates from 1980 - eightfold? 

(I don't really believe this eightfold size of increase in the number of graduates!  As the proportion of the population in college has increased, so has the drop-out rate, and the rate of repeating years of study - probably the proportion of the total number of students that graduate each year has fallen considerably.)

But even if the numbers of graduates are considerably less than this estimate – even if it was half of this - the expansion in the output of graduates from 1980 to 2007 was utterly ginormous.

 So - where are the benefits commensurate with this vast expansion in graduates (relatively and in absolute numbers)….? 

The benefits should be pretty obvious, surely? 



  1. Do the numbers for Britain prior to the 1949 entry include all of Ireland?

    Here in the Republic we have politicians continuously bleating about "the knowledge econnomy" etc. I assume that they have not for a moment considered the distribution of IQ in the Irish population nor the relevancy of IQ to the matter of the economy.

  2. @aliialiacensent - I don't thing the counting will be consistent wrt Ireland over this timescale - but it doesn't really make any difference to the argument either way, since the population of Ireland is such a small proportion of that in Great Britain - I am only talking about the big picture number-wise.

    These are 'back of envelope calculations' - and while I would welcome anyone who can be bothered to calculate them more accurately (or point out any mistakes!) - it will not affect the conclusion significantly.

  3. Here is a way to annoy yourself, if not your colleagues. Ask them what it is, exactly, they are teaching their students which makes them more productive in the workforce. The engineers come up with very plausible answers, as do the chemists. Some other disciplines come up with passable answers: physicists, mathematicians, a few others.

    For the most (most in the sense of most degrees) part, however, they come up with vaporous crap about critical thinking. Crap which so obviously bears no relationship to what actual students are actually doing all day in the classroom that it is maddening to hear it.

    But, it is very clear that people with bachelor's degrees earn more than do people without them, and it is reasonably clear that this is not due entirely to selection in the simplest sense (i.e. that high IQ people are paid more and that degreed people have high IQs; therefore, degreed people are paid more). That is, there are RCT analougues in which higher levels of educational credentials lead to higher earnings.

    As you have perhaps said and certainly alluded to before, the most likely explanation seems to be that employers use the credential as a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness in potential employees. And it is a good signal of these things, since you have to be reasonably smart and very conscientious to put up with getting a bachelor's degree. Plus, the degree signals that you have good parents, and the relevant sense of "good" is heritable. And, of course, requiring a degree is a magical way to weed out undesirables without exposing yourself to legal liability.

  4. In the US the 'lack of benefit' is even more pronounced. Every year we have tens of thousands graduate with a bachelors degree who have learned nothing and worse, know absolutely nothing. I would dare say that most four year graduates know less than a typical high school graduate from 1950.

    And there's the nub. Forget benefit to society or merit. The problem with any argument about higher education, indeed public education in general, is the same problem as with any argument about abortion or global warming (or anything else bureaucrats touch) and that is that it is not an argument about the merits of education or abortion or carbon dioxide but about the MONEY that pays for those things.

    Theses "problem" as with all problems involving mankind have nothing to do with education, less to do with benefit and everything to do with man's inherit corrupt nature.

    How else do you explain the death of logic? Or, for that matter, something as human as reason?

  5. It is about time we went back to the drawing board on education I think.