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I'm trying to get my head around the historical processes whereby we (the UK) got into this mess over higher education. Not the minutiae (who's going to pay for university education) but the why of it ...

Here's my working hypothesis:

* Pre-industrial revolution (< C18): universities were diploma mills for vicars. Apprenticeship system and relic of mediaeval guild system provides training for members of the professions. Some professions — law, medicine — begin moving towards academic training.

* Industrial revolution (c18-19): physical sciences and arts are taught at new metropolitan red-brick universities. Professional training is institutionalized, although lengthy apprenticeships continue. In factories, work forces are trained on an ad-hoc basis according to the employers' needs. Oxbridge begin to take in a higher proportion of non-clergy and teach other subjects, but university education remains an upper class/high-end professional domain. Universal primary education for basic literacy and numeracy are introduced at this time to ensure the mass work force meet basic requirements.

* Industrial revolution (c19-c20, pre 1979): universal education to age 12, then 14, then 16 is introduced as the requirements of skilled labour in an industrial economy become more complex. Multi-year apprenticeships are extensively used to train skilled workers. Stable employment and "job for life" are assumed. From 1950 onwards, professionalization of teaching drives a requirement for school teachers to be graduates. Increase in demand for university graduates (for teaching and mid-range professions that formerly worked on apprenticeship). Period characterized by high employment, strong trade unions, long employment tenure.

* Thatcher revolution (1979-90): the "job for life" goes out of the window, unions take a hammering, high structural unemployment sets in for a generation with the forced shutdown of many old smokestack industries, and there's a top-down political drive for higher mobility (which doesn't work, in the short term).

Consequences of Thatcher revolution include: emphasis on credentialism — if you don't have a job for life, you need proof (on paper) of skills that were formerly acquired in the workplace — combined with deprecation of apprenticeship system (where's the incentive to provide a 5 year apprenticeship for a trainee if they then turn round and go find a job elsewhere?). Demand for pieces of paper as proof of fitness for employment goes through the roof.

* Post-Thatcherite adjustment, phase 1 (1991-97): demand for HE puts unprecedented strain on funding. First, student grants are phased out and replaced with loans. Next, Polytechnics and Colleges are redesignated as Universities and their paper output standardized as "university degrees" (see credentialism above). (Some of the new Universities genuinely rise to the challenge and become centres of excellence; others ... don't.) The school diploma system based on 'O' levels (later GCSEs) and 'A' levels is systematically adjusted via creeping grade inflation to allow double the previous number of school leavers to achieve paper qualifications acceptable for entry to lower end commercial training establishments.

* Post-Thatcherite adjustment, phase 2 (1998-2008): Many jobs previously occupied by apprenticeship graduates or people with part-time diplomas are now graduate entry — e.g. nursing, banking, non-chartered engineering. The few non-graduate entry trades are artificially inflated in value due to the rarity of 4-5 year apprenticeship posts (by 2000, a plumber in Edinburgh could earn more than a Java developer). Stated public policy is to market the UK overseas as a highly-educated highly-flexible workforce; the drive for near-universal higher education is thus part of a bid for positioning in global markets. Unfortunately, India and China have universities too ...

* The present crisis (2008-2010): "knowledge work" is in a deflationary spiral due to offshoring and competition from overseas. Just about everyone has a sheepskin — credentialism has run its course as increasing constraints on employer's ability to provide references mean that the only indicators of a prospective employee's suitability are third-party training transcripts. The work force is largely atomized and demoralized. Students graduating in 2008 come with a £30,000 debt to service — comparable to the mortgage on a 1988 graduate's first home. The tertiary education sector is competing in a global marketplace with institutions that are part of the American higher education bubble (with 700% fee increases over two decades).

Meanwhile, individual workers may find that their increased earnings from acquiring the employment credentials leave them behind their peers who skipped out on higher education and went straight into a trade.

Then a government emerges that wants to make huge cuts to public spending, and the education sector is a tempting target. If people need paper credentials in order to work, why not pile all the costs of the education sector on them? Hence the message of the Browne review.

Prognosis: bleak. What's actually happening here is a credentials bubble bursting. The industrial policies of Margaret Thatcher forced people into a paper chase, and the need to compete with global markets accelerated it — but inflation in the cost of education reduced its earning power, and we're now seeing a decade-overdue adjustment.

(But what about research? What about academia? Well, they were minority pursuits all along, compared to the higher education production line that is the focus of the former polytechnic system: just look for degrees in "Computer Science and Business Studies" and ask what they exist for. (Here's a hint: it's not an MBA, and there's not much real computer science in it either.) And as for actual research in science and the arts ... did you really expect anything good to come of a bunch of Tories? Hey, at least they ring-fenced the Olympic budget! So we know the anti-terrorism police in London will have a budget in 2012, even if the libraries have no books.)

Someone please tell me I'm misreading the situation and being overly pessimistic ...?



It's complex, but I think what happened is that we have a qualifications arms race. Everybody needs more and qualifications to complete with the other fellow. Sexual Selection with latin scrolls instead of peacocks tails.

Browne is simply the government saying 'whoa, I know we kind of pushed for this, but we can't afford it now'. Thought enlarged in bloggage here: Written well before Browne.


Yes, but why do we have a qualifications arms race?

(Note: I don't think the problem is specific to, or entirely internal to, conditions within the UK. Other countries have the same disease.)


Given that I'm still in the system and looking out I still agree with you.

One thing you missed is that as well as university funding in general the other soft target is research which is one of the few areas of government spending that actually has positive returns. Cutting funding to universities and research means that not only will students be paying a fortune for a degree but the degree will be worth a lot less because the university that issues it will be poorly viewed as it loses research credibility.

The credibility loss of course reduces the number of hi-tech businesses (one of the few sectors left that the UK does well in, it accounts for 40% of GDA, gross value added).

The summary? cut spending to Unis and research and in the UK you're going to be cutting the life blood of one of our remaining profitable sectors


Just look at the way the entrance requirements for 'Chartered Engineer' have risen. If the degree mill no longer provides a certification of quality (which it doesn't) then other accreditations arise to fulfil the need.

In reality the universities have been eviscerated by those with who should know better. The degrees have become shadows of worth, the research has to be focused on outcomes, and 'publicity' people claim it as the immediate cure for cancer.

It's primed for two things: a) online and distributed learning reducing the cost of gaining those pieces of paper (no need for the cost base they have). b) real research either dying entirely, or being owned lock stock by IP lawyers and patent trolls. Its relatively cheap to own a tame scientist or engineer team and use them to pump out IP claims.

Not a good idea to go to university now if you have a brain. Exploit your smarts, build a business and get while the gettings good.


The logical extension is charging for all education after the statutory school leaving age. High schools could then charge for 5th and 6th year.

Or perhaps we could move back to buying jobs directly. If I want to be a doctor I would buy myself an apprenticeship with my local GP who would teach me everything I need to know to take over from him. I'm sure there are descriptions of this sort of thing in Dickens.


In the United States, law requires three years of graduate study. Why? Because doctors have years of graduate study and doctors can only be so much more prestigious than lawyers. Repeat down the chain of being.

You hit some of the other causes too. To have mobility, you have to have fungible credentials. Larry down the street can no longer say Charlie has stoked my software mills these past twenty year.

There's also the structural problem of too many people, not enough resources, particularly if you want to live a lifestyle whose standards were set either in happier days generally or by a social class one or two rungs above you.


That's a very anglo-centric and restricted view of universities and literacy - law and medicine were moving into the universities by the umm, 14th century or so, and calling them diploma mills for vicars rather puts down what went on in them before the 18th century. Maybe Oxbridge were diploma mills for vicans by the 17/18th century, but I don't much about that period.

That said, I find your analysis compelling and would like to sign up for your political party.
Credentialism is also important in a jobs market where increased specialisation means you have to move around more and therefore will be a complete unknown factor to your interviewers, except for your piece of paper and how you perform at the interview, and at the other end of the scale, it makes it easier to weed out people for temporary jobs - "THey have a degree, they'd be bored, don't hire them, but they have an HNC from the right college, hire them".
Knowing which school or university you went to has always been quite important, for social and class reasons (IN the west its the protestant catholic divide, in Edinburgh it is more about class distinction) but there is also a definite strain of bureacratic managerialism here, in that you get a piece of paper for everything you've been trianed in- somewhere I have pieces of paper for a half day training course in risk assessment, a certificate for a 4 day course in analysis of airborne hazards such as dust etc, and certificates for knowledge of ISO 14001 and 9001. I think there has definitely been a more cultural change, to rely less upon "I knew his faither" and your school as a guarantee, to preferring pieces of paper.

Do we know how much the unemployment figures have been massaged by the number of teenagers and suchlike kept off the jobless totals by being in full time education?

So what do you see happening in the next few years? If cuts are carried out the way they might be, it'll kill a lot of university research, moreover, opening up universities to charge whatever fee's they like is a massive culture change, and will lead to a multiple tier university system, with of course the rich taking up the best places in the best uni's and leaving the rest to suffer hugely.
I would be totally against any attempt to give us a university system like the one in the USA, which I suppose due to the same sort of inflation, charges people gigantic sums of money for degrees. In many cases I understand you can earn enough to pay off the gigantic debt as a professional, but not so much in this country.

Basically Thatcher and her bastard offspring have been turning us more and more into the USA and don't seem to care that this means the destruction of many 'traditional' values and the realignment of society towards the american model, which is not what I want to see.


If you were to be of the "Capitalism is a conspiracy" frame of mind (which i'm mostly not) having a good chunk of your workforce starting out their working life with £30,000 debt is no bad thing if you want to oppress the worker.

Qualifications may also have become more important as the workforce has become more mobile, as references are becoming harder to come by. At the company i used to work for, i never had any contact with the HR department, who would be dealing with any reference requests as they came in from new employers. (not to mention the fact that the company i used to work for no longer exists due to corporate restructuring) The most they can give is a letter stating the time i worked for them and my position as the people i used to work with are either unavailable or have moved on (I used to work at sea as an engineer). This is essentially worthless.

How many people are now subcontracted, or work as temps and are in the same position? Having paper qualifications means that, at least in theory, there's been some test that you can do what you claim to, when there's no way of checking it with someone you've worked with.


I am only familiar with the United States experience, but here sciences, engineering and athletics steal money from the other students. The universities provide a cheap education to most students, take the excess money and shovel it into money intensive research projects, building programs and sports events. These provide PRESTIGE in big flashing neon letters and bulk up (literally) the school's credentials in the academic and larger world. This is done mainly off the backs of the average student's tuition as well as the taxpayers. Sometimes the byproduct is worthwhile (e.g. research), other times not, but that's not the main point of the system. A humanities student receives some reflected glory in the value of their piece of paper and they may benefit from research down the road, but it's not clear that they get what they pay for.


That's a very anglo-centric and restricted view of universities and literacy

That's because I'm trying to diagnose what's wrong with the English/Welsh education system. (Scotland, as you know, Bob, has a somewhat different funding model -- although I suspect Scotland, too, is going down this path sooner or later.)

So what do you see happening in the next few years?

Well, revisiting the decision to redesignate all the polytechnics and colleges as "universities" back in the 90s would be a good start. It muddied the water between research and teaching institutions. It also seems to me that we badly need to have a comprehensive review of how research and postgraduate education are structured in the UK -- and insisting all research should be evaluated in terms of immediate commercial applications and/or publication paper trail is not the way forward.


We also have graduate student mills where reserch universitites accept and train many more students than the market can bear in order to have bodies to teach classes as cheaply as possible. 90% of these students have no real career prospects, but every year a new batch of sea monkies arrives to teach the undergrads for a few years.

I don't know how Britain developed in the 20th century, whether there was an equivalent to the GI Bill or what have you to increase the number of university entrants. I do know that through the 19th century at least, England/Wales was one of the least literate societies in the West: falling just above Portugal and below Poland, nowhere near the standards of Germany, France and the Nordic countries. I think Scotland was measured separately and did better; I know Ireland was more literate. Did England change its attitude towards mass education completely or is there still a remnant of the meme that only certain people need book learning?


I've been self-employed for a decade. Prior to that ... only one of my previous employers still exists, although it has been subjected to three takeovers in the past decade (so there's some question as to whether HR records are intact).

I did a chunk of freelance contract work during the 90s, as well as formal employee stuff. Again, only one of those employers still exists, and it, too, has been subjected to takeovers.

CVs suffer from bit rot.

I'm 100% with you on the incredible convenience of all graduates coming with a fresh burden of debt, insofar as it coerces buy-in to a system that relies on most folks joining the rat race: but I'm not by any means sure it's a deliberate outcome. Rather, that debt represents displaced investment in educating the workforce; what would once have been funded out of central revenue from the income tax pool is now displaced directly onto the recipients.


I saw a great comment in the Guardian thread on this yesterday:


The Bretton Woods system intensified a version of colonialism in which nations of the South were brought into bondage by the offer of loans so that they could invest in all the accroutements of their newly won independence. The imbalances of global capital and the corruption of local officials meant that repayments were missed, and had to be supported by restructurings and new loans until the IMF were called in to reorder neo-colonial economies in the image of their financial masters. Debt was a drug: once the initial loans were taken, more noughts on the debt did not matter any more; the indentured slavery brought these nations nations into line.

Then someone thought that would be a good idea for keeping radicalised students in line too.

So first in the US, and then in England & Wales, education had to be paid for, but cheap debt was offered to pay for it. In a way it could be seen as a loss leader, for once the students' parents doctrine of not spending more than you had (mod mortgages) had been transgressed, and once the student felt that a bit more debt on 15,000 would not make much difference, the deed of indenture was sealed.

From here on the costs and thus the debt will be increased towards US proportions were 6 figure debts are common, where there is no escape from payment (even by moving abroad), and where the lives of their best young talent is thus restructured as little hyper-leveraged enterprises, bound to their bond holders.

It is the colonisation of youth."

Really hit home for me.

I know dozens of my peers who came out of university with serious debt (£15-20k average) and who have really struggled to find the 'good graduate jobs' that were supposed to be the reward for taking on that debt and doing another three or four or seven years of education. And that was when the whole shebang was still somewhat subsidised. Now we're deeply stuffed because there simply aren't the jobs available to pay off this debt (if there ever were). 50% of the population with a degree is an objective, but I've never seen anyone at governmental level asking themselves if it's a reasonable or useful objective.

But there remains a bigger problem, which is that not having a degree is increasingly becoming an effective roadblock to any management or non-manual job. Credentialism is rife and companies are using a degree (or even a 2:1 degree) as a lazy filter for candidates. Like someone upthread and the Guardian comment noted, hiring grads is a good bet - they're too crippled by debt to put up much of a fight if you need to screw the nut on them later.


We have a race because jobs are desirable, selection for access to jobs is by HR departments and they find qualifications attractive.

HR departments are female bowerbirds, qualifications are brightly coloured shells, and jobs are mating privileges.

Part of the problem is that if you want a decent job, there are not many strategies other than obtaining academic qualifications that are perceived as effective.


And now we know what will cause the 2020-2022 recession and related house price crash - 2012+ cohort with even less net income than the previous years knocking the bottom out of the housing and discretionary spending markets again...


An addendum; because jobs are no longer for life, the selection process will be repeated, so it is more attractive to expend resources to improve your desirability to HR departments.

Compare with mating in humans, where it has been mentioned that some individuals put less effort into optimising there attractiveness when they believe they are secure in permanent relationship.


The employment structure in the UK (and the rest of the world generally) has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1950s the British population of working age (16-65) was about 30 million. Of those 15 million were male and 3% of those men (500,000) worked in the coal mining industry. It was barely mechanised, heavily reliant on stoop labour and they still used pit ponies underground for haulage in many pits.

Nowadays the working population has increased to about 35 million and there are no industries like coal mining to provide the jobs en masse. Farming, steel, coal, shipbuilding, car making have all increased productivity and reduced costs and manning levels by mechanisation and rationalisation of operational practices -- we no longer import raw iron ore and coking coal to make iron in the UK the way we used to, we refine scrap steel instead and buy in finished steel from cheaper sources abroad.

The result is, as someone else commented, an arms race for paper qualifications to put you ahead of the crowd of young people looking for their first jobs. There's no longer the ability to finish school on the Friday after you reach 14 and start at your Da's work on the Monday automatically. The Government's attempts to improve HE access has had the happy effect of keeping many of these kids out of the workforce for an extra few years but they're running out of slack (I can't see everyone spending an extra two or three years doing MA work after their Baccalaureate just to get an entry-level post at a bank, for example) and the jobs are still slipping away.


I think I've got most of your last few years CV in my bookshelf! Although as most employers only want no more than two pages of A4 in an application now...

I don't think it was deliberate at all. As the workforce becomes more mobile, you need transferable ways of proving competence, particularly to filter applicants for new jobs. Couple that with the push for higher education by New Labour, which was coming from the position that education had previously been only widely available to the richer half of society, so was trying to make it available to all. A good intention, but done without totally thinking through the consequences. How unlike them...

Now many more people are going to uni, but without any real goals. It's just what you do. Rather than going to university because you're deeply interested in a subject, or you're working towards a particular career, many people are going because it's what you do next after A-Levels.

At school, all my friends and I were pushed towards university. I come from a good comprehensive, got decent marks, that's what you did. Anyone who didn't was thought of as a bit odd. Now we're in the position of a degree being a base qualification for many jobs that just don't need them, starting people out in a career in deep debt, and making university more expensive for those who do need to go, or are truly interested their study.


I think the main problem is that we, as modern, responsible people want to make rational, informed choices. Or at least we want to convince ourselves and others that we do.

In many or most cases it is very difficult to decide who is best suited for a job. A job application with a CV and one or several interviews just doesn't give enough information to separate two individuals and since we don't want to go on our gut feeling when we make these decisions, we want a justification and a paper trail for why we picked someone over someone else and diplomas and degrees fill this purpose very well.


Chris Bertram has an article on Lord Browne's report, reposted over at Crooked Timber. Is it relevant?

Are you perhaps taking too much of an instrumentalist view of education?


Well, I didn't expect anything less from a man (Browne) who went to private school, Cambridge, and at his peak of parasitizing on his employees and shareholders earned £16,000 a day. No wonder he thinks most people see University as a positive investment.

There does seem to be something deeply objectionable about a system that is essentially moving towards making people pay for job training - especially as in most cases it's only going to buy them a window of 10-15 years in which to recoup, given the rapidity of change in the jobs market, and propensity of most firms to simply make employees redundant rather than retraining.

What comes next - well, I expect that to the governments surprise, graduate numbers will decline. Employers may also start to realise we're better off taking a smart 18 year old and teaching them on the job, because they'll work for less that someone with a £40,000 gambling debt.


I've just been looknig for a new job and the one thing that employers seem to be least interested in is my degree. (Unless it's a pre-interview filter along the lines of "Don't even bother unless you've got a 2:1 or better from a Russel Group Uni)

I've had several written tests and interviews where I've had to prove my knowledge of various aspects of the J2EE technology stack. That seems to be enough for most employers.

Oddly enough my new employers don't ask for proof of educational qualifications older than five years.


law and medicine were moving into the universities by the umm, 14th century or so

I think the question is more when the professions began demanding formal qualification. If you're just going to focus on teaching, both law and medicine were part of medieval university curricula from the beginning (Bologna started as a law school, teaching Roman law). Before that, they were taught in cathedral schools.


"Meanwhile, individual workers may find that their increased earnings from acquiring the employment credentials leave them behind their peers who skipped out on higher education and went straight into a trade."

A research paper was done on this 20 years ago in Guatamala. The conclusion was that those who went into the workforce had five years more income than those who went to University.

At least at that time they didn't acquire debt as well.

For the most part high end jobs are still more related to who you know than anything else. The degree is needed but if you don't have a way in the paper is worthless.


Nice analysis, though to be fair this isn't just a UK thing. The credential bubble bursting is happening in North America too.

I've recently come to the conclusion that a big part of the problem is that the institutions providing the training for the credentials are also doing the granting of the credentials; this creates a conflict of interest as they will try to graduate as many as possible to increase revenue. There's a bubble right there.

The lead time for many credentials is also excessive; many years for certifications the more talented could probably achieve in months.

In hiring (students for IT stuff lately, with a bio component) I don't look for credentials or marks other than minimally required by our funders. I look for evidence of achievements. Building things, completing mid to large scale projects in teams or alone and having taught themselves skills all rank much higher for me than what university or college they're from.


The bubble definitely needs bursting. The question no-one seems to be asking in the media is simply "what do we need higher education for?"

There are only two purposes for higher education: either it's practical training that you require to get a job afterwards; or it's simply learning for fun with no prospect of getting a job afterwards based on their course. Unfortunately the vast majority of graduates are just learning for fun. This includes apparently-practical courses like forensic science or music technology, where the number of graduates actually getting jobs in that field barely reaches double-digit percent - or in other words, we (the public) are subsiding course fees for an order of magnitude more graduates than needed. The problem is that the government has shown no interest in closing the loop on forcing universities to deliver courses that actually deliver value for their students.

If you've got three (or four) years of subsidised boozing, then of course you'll go ahead and study English Literature and Philosophy (to pick one course which contributes nothing to anyone). And if there's a glut of unis then you're guaranteed a place. That's applying positive feedback, making the situation more unstable, and that's where we've been

Loading up graduates with fees is one form of negative feedback for that loop. If it costs you real money to study, chances are you'll ask yourself whether you're going to get value for that money. Would a writing course be better than studying English Lit, for instance? But loans make this feedback less effective - it doesn't actually feel like paying at the time. Plus of course there's the inegalitarian downside that rich kids get to play at whatever they want.

A better feedback system would be a survey sent to all graduates 5 years after uni, asking how relevant their course was to their current professional career, on a rating 1-10, and funding the university according to the average rating (say, 7+ for 100% funds, 2- for 5% funds). And publish those numbers for every course. It'll never happen though, bcos that kind of feedback is alien to the educational system. (I speak as someone who was told during an Electrical Engineering degree by his head of department: "We're not here to teach you what you need in your job, we're here to teach you what we think you should learn. This is not a vocational degree." Exact words. FFS!)

Meanwhile we have ourselves a problem, which is what to do with people whose minds aren't set up to succeed at knowledge-based work. There used to be plenty of skilled manual work available, but 30 successive years of politicians have ensured that it's all been shipped over to India/China/wherever. The only work left is the "service industry", which by definition is a zero-sum game economically. Hence the deflationary situation, bcos there's too few people generating real value.


New Zealand has gone done the same road over the last 30 years - a shift to mass tertiary education, coupled with a decline in student support, funding cuts, and a shift to fees and a loan system. The result has been a generation of graduates crippled by debt, unable to buy houses, and fleeing overseas to work in Australia or the UK as fast as a 747 can carry them. Plus, regular industrial unrest in the educational and health sectors, as the people in those sectors who have stayed behind fight for higher wages to repay their debts.

If the UK removes fee caps and allows universities to charge whatever they like, our government will probably follow suit (cargo cult politics). Which will make things even worse. Worse, a bunch of our universities seem to want to establish a two-teir system, and will hike fees solely to exclude (oh, and to paint themselves as "high quality", which obviously they can't do if they are affordable). We're really too small to sustain that sort of snobbery, but that's sadly not going to stop them from trying.


There are only two purposes for higher education: either it's practical training that you require to get a job afterwards; or it's simply learning for fun with no prospect of getting a job afterwards based on their course.

Spoken like an engineer.

I'm afraid you don't get the whole liberal arts thing.

(Although, to be fair, 80-90% of the folks entering HE today agree with you.)

(Although, to be fair, 80-90% of the folks entering HE today agree with you.)

And that is a a large part of the problem.


The Wilson government had to seriously debate whether the labour market could afford a rise in the school leaving age to fifteen, there was that much demand for labour. Forty years on, it's a de facto leaving age of about 21, there's a lot of disguised unemployment there are well.


Graham wrote: "There are only two purposes for higher education"

I'd add a third: higher education, in any subject (if done properly) makes you into a person better able to understand: to understand and appreciate all sorts of things, including the way that society works, the way the universe works, and what humanity can do.

Charlie, were I you I'd check out David Edgerton'sWarfare State and look up 'universities' in the index. Won't take more than ten mins but will be worth it.

PS - I have to confess to having an interest here, as someone who works in part-time HE. The Browne review proposals, if implement, will have a net negative benefit for the UK as a whole. On the other hand, I have just stopped worrying about being made redundant any time in the next decade.


Spoken like an engineer. I'm afraid you don't get the whole liberal arts thing.

I would have loved to take a classical liberal arts degree (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music ( versus the goo that makes up LA programs today.


The German Arbeitszeugnis (literally work report card) might be a solution. Your employer is required to give you a detailed annual evaluation which you can then show to prospective employers.


I'm part of the rabble that believe that formalized post-secondary school value (for the student) is going to rapidly dwindle in value. Maybe even secondary school as well.

The availability of online materials will enable your average eager-beaver Java jockey to avoid going to Java Vocational College (the CS program at any agro/engineering university) for ~$55K (US) and instead learn it himself via MITs excellent open source material - then sit for a cert and get a fantastic $40K a year job. There's a number of interesting secondary economic effects from this.

I'd bet that universities would improve with this outcome, become more research focused and the people attending would be there to contribute, not just get their ticket punched.

I slogged thru an electrical engineering degree in order to have career options and greatly regret it now.


Can I blow a hole in our host's historical treatese? makes mention of "Teampull na Trionad". Following links from there leads us to , which is a basic account of what is definitely known about the site. What is not doscussed in such detail is that a site of this scope, in this period, was likely to be a centre of learning, effectively a university, teaching languages, medicine, law, and divinity. In ~1100AD, there were no "faculties of science or engineering" as we now know them. To learn science, you found a scholar with an interest in the area, and preparedness to teach, and engineering would mean being apprenticed to a master mason or a smith!


I "benefited" (if that's the correct term) from two taught professional/vocational degrees with a science background. In terms of creating rounded individuals, they were awash. In terms of fitting me for my current occupation, they're not quite a big fat zero: if you want to write hard SF, having the S background is helpful. (But there'd have been any number of other ways to get it ...) Meanwhile? To get to that point I sequentially dropped subjects: no foreign languages after 13, no arts subjects (including English and History as well as Art) after 16, ditto Geography. The A-level General Studies syllabus isn't a substitute for a broad educational base; I got about a term each on archaeology, computer science, philosophy, modern history, politics, and a couple of other topics -- barely a whistle-stop tour as it was very much an afterthought after the vocational training.

And that was 25-30 years ago, before the steady downgrading of the schools syllabus for ages 14-18.


Unless you buy into the whole "a degree shows a training in how to learn" thing, does a modern "lib arts degree" actually have any benefit to society, once you have the (fairly small) number of, say, English Lit graduates needed to ensure that there is someone to teach the next generation of Eng Lit teachers and lecturers?


Oh that is so true - if you restrict research only to that which is immediately monetisable, you destroy any chance of longer term improvements and sacrifice long term growth on the altar of cheap profits here and now.
Or that is the theory at least, I don't know enough about it to demonstrate it's accuracy.

THe problem is that in this issue I am merely a moderately well informed MoP, and thus have trouble joining in any debate because of lack of real data.

As for the two uses for university dichotomy, thats false as well, since lots of people use their degree as a marker of ability whilst not actually using what they learnt during it.

Universities are centre's of culture as well, the problem is of course that culture these days has to be under the controlof large corporations for profit making purposes, and if you force the universities to become profit oriented degree mills then you also destroy their more intangible local cultural aspects.


does a modern "lib arts degree" actually have any benefit to society

Well, a very large number of the people who run the country did one, if that helps you decide either way.


does a modern "lib arts degree" actually have any benefit to society

Yes. As Chris @ 29 pointed out, it makes you better at understanding how society works. Which, in turn, makes you bettr at criticising the government, producing a net externality for democracy.

But why would government care about that?


I'll note that Law seems to have been the first university discipline (Bologna). And even in the old days of Oxbridge there were plenty of niches which made use of university degrees for non-vicar functions (consider the heavy presence of "University Wits" among the Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights: Shakespeare and Webster being the obvious exceptions). Law had the Inns of Court, but the degrees in Law go back a long ways and the better-educated lawyers were frequently university-trained. (Though even there I have a great-great uncle from the mid-19th century who was noted as having been unusual in having been university trained before he went into law -- but this was in the colonies, which were a slightly different world. On the other hand, he became Minister of Justice, so it seems to have done well by him.)

The same overall shifts have taken place elsewhere (here in Canada, certainly) without the need for Thatcher, so I suspect that the impact of Thatcherism as such here was a contingent surface effect rather than a principal driver in the changes going on.

Those quibbles past, there have been two factors at work simultaneously in recent years: a simultaneous increse in arbitrary credentialism combined with a lowering of standards. Many organizations which require a university degree for hires without X years of experience really require only the skills which used to be associated with a high-school leaving certificate: but that level of skill is now not even reliably associated with a pass-level university degree. (There are, of course, plenty of jobs which require real university knowledge, whether good knowledge of multivariable calculus or a solid grounding in linguistics or some other specific area, but many of the administrative jobs which make up modern corporate work really require reading, writing, some arithmetic, and the ability to think clearly. There is also no really obvious reason that good students couldn't learn those things in high school.)

This general shift has been combined with status-driven changes -- college and polytechnic teachers want to be university teachers -- and with professions which want a higher status associated with a degree rather than a certificate (teaching and nursing).

As unemployment has gone up, political pressure for "immediate" benefits of higher education have also gone up, so (despite the generally interchangeable character of most disciplines for many jobs) funding gets channeled towards business or technology, leaving the liberal arts and humanities high and dry. (I understand that classics departments in England are under considerable pressure.)

The total effect is unsustainable: it has amounted to (one on hand) a transfer of cost-bearing from the community to individuals, which not only increases their debt but imposes barriers to those who cannot afford it, thereby taking a heavy cost via the reduction of social mobility, and (on the other) a general watering-down of the value of the training being provided for that cost -- one side effect of this, when combined with the resources provided by the net, is the emergence of the possibility for motivated individuals to self-train to a high degree of quality with a low cost (the equivalent of the core of an old-style university library is there at your fingertips, especially if you want to study an area like classics or English literature) so that the possibility of a complete divorce between credentials and skills is approaching from the opposite direction as well.

It wouldn't be quite so bad if it weren't competing for government funds with the ever-increasing health-care budget.

I don't know what the bursting of this bubble will be like, especially as it will probably get tangled up in the problems raised by the schools continuing to have a structure designed to create (mainly) obedient factory workers in a world which wants more graduates with critical rather than manual skills.


does a modern "lib arts degree" actually have any benefit to society?

I think so. Because society isn't just about having lots of plumbers, engineers, and brain surgeons. Once you've taken care of the bottom levels of Maslow's hierarchy you need to look to the higher level functions -- broadly, entertainment, education, diversionary occupations, and suchlike stuff. A society run along purely technocratic lines is going to be intellectually impoverished and not much fun to live in.


I am at the stage where I trully believe this country is going to disappear into a mass of mediocrity. Mostly because the education system is such a mess. I mean, who wants to get into well over £20000 of debt just to get a good education?

We are now watching a government wanting to tax graduates higher to repay the cost of their education. Well, that makes no sense to me. Be clever and pay more tax then the numbskulls of the world. Where is the incentive to actually be clever, to apply your brain and get a degree?? You would be better acting like a simpleton and just paying the basic tax rate.

I always thought that as graduates tend to get better jobs than working in Tesco that they would pay more tax. They have a higher rate of pay so the pay more. In that way alone they repay their debt to society and the government. They are the ones who create the great things, the new ideas and do the highly skilled and specialised jobs. So in that way they are repaying their debt.

If we are not careful our further education will end up like America's, where a numpty can get a scholarship to college because he can play a certain sport and a genius will be overlooked because he is too poor to pay for an education.


"Frank Chalk" (UK schoolteacher / blogger) puts it very nicely:

The argument over tuition fees is very simple. We can either just send the clever kids to Uni like we used to and afford to pay them a grant, so that they leave with very little debt; or we can allow all the duffers to go, in which case we can't afford to subsidise every one of them, so they will have to pay out loads of money, which in many cases will be a millstone round their neck for years afterwards.


You missed the important point that current targets are for 50% of the population to go to university and get a degree.

Not having a degree in that situation marks you out as subnormal.


re the £30,000 debt enforcing compliance. Given a moderately ambitious and compliant subject, it will have the effect claimed. However, it is also an incentive to stay under the repayment threshold for 25 years, when the debt evaporates; ie. it encourages some people to drop out. I'm not sure how the incentives will work with the new system, no doubt there will be something conducive to the formation of future generations of yes-people.

Wrt the purpose of a university. It is and should be a lot of things; providing vocational training for subjects which are changing rapidly and intellecually challenging (eg law, medicine, not plumbing); research; maintenance and transmission of the culture. The last one is probably the most difficult. Any civilization that amounts to more than an ant heap needs to reflect on its history, philosophy, language &c &c and a university seems like a good place to do that. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, media studies being the usual whipping boy, so any or all of these functions can become degraded. My rule of thumb is that any subject with 'studies' in the title (media ~, business ~, peace ~) should be relegated to a technical college or be done away with.

Which leads to the other problem in the UK - technical education is abysmal. Think craft design & technology: my daughter has 'designed' three pizzas in her school career; CADCAM? CNC machining? You're mad to even think about it.

Contrast with Germany, where a trained waiter (2 - 3 years!) can come to the UK, slot in to a high end Italian place and he already knows all the wines on the list, because he's studied them.

For a powerful characterisation of what a university is about, have a look at Had this been written when I was a lad I think my educational career might have been a bit different.



Uni too challenging for me, obviously!


Charlie @2 "(Note: I don't think the problem is specific to, or entirely internal to, conditions within the UK. Other countries have the same disease.)"

Which is why your narrative is biased. The problems in the UK education system were happening well before Thatcher. I was at a British university in the early 1970's, and even by then the grants and living support had eroded away badly since the 1960's.

Arguably the proof of skills in a multi-company/career life is teh CV/resume, not the qualifications. Qualifications have become a signal to employers about what you will do before you started work.

In the US, those signals now "require" community and other extra-curricular activities.

The bit I do agree with you is that the education complex is a bubble. It is almost a classic mania, but worse, as you almost have no choice but to take part. This is fed by stories and economic analyses of the value of different levels of education which drives up the investment cost to achieve it, and the means to fund it. The post bubble solutions are emerging, but they are not yet on the radar.


"Students graduating in 2008 come with a £30,000 debt to service — comparable to the mortgage on a 1988 graduate's first home."

No, not at all comparable. Because 1) we've had 20 years of inflation in between - that 1988 graduate could expect a starting salary of about £8,000. In 2008, it was more like £20,000. and 2) in 1988, the bank rate was north of 9%, and your mortgage rate would have been well above that. In 2008, the student loan would have carried more like 3% interest.


So clue me in, what is the purpose of higher education other than getting a professional job or learning for fun.


50% of people having a degree would surely devalue the worth of having a degree in the first place. A degree used to put you in the top 10% of the UK population. Perhaps because only the brainy kids went on to uni to get them. If just about everyone can wave a degree about it is little more than a meaningless certificate.

The scary thing is that my own brother has a honours degree in electronic engineering. He works for Morrisons in their warehouse in Bellshill near Glasgow. He was completely unable to find work, even with his degree. Myself, I dropped out of college (mainly me just being too young and discovering booze and women) but now earn more than my brother because I lucked into a job in Scotrail. That is crazy and wrong, but it is how things played out.

If just about everyone has a degree, there are going to be lots of very well qualified people at your local McDonalds.


Very good post, thanks.

I posit that the value of a degree is inversely proportional to a society's level of industralisation. That is, there's nothing instrinsically 'british' (if that's the correct word) in the situation you describe. I have, however, done no research to back my claim (nor do I particularly possess the skills to do so as I have a computing degree, not a liberal arts degree).

In Australia university education was free for many years (1970-something to about 1990 (89?)). As far as I can see this was the government funding the country's transition from a [labour intensive] primary producer to a secondary/tertiary producer (upskilling the working class).

Now that that shock is over the population has been set free and university fees are at the start of a free-market process.

Also, what's wrong with they way things are going? Is it inherently bad?


Spoken like an engineer.

Guilty as charged. :)

I'm afraid you don't get the whole liberal arts thing.

This rather depends on your definition of the "liberal arts thing". Music, dance, sculpture, writing, film, fashion - in fact anything involving actually doing something: all of these are as practical as engineering. And there's a certain level of demand for trained, skilled graduates. The problem is that the numbers of graduates required in these areas are orders of magnitude lower than the numbers taking these courses. Does this deliver anything? Not really?

For sure I might wonder whether some of the results of an arts school are worth having. But then I'd equally wonder whether some of the outputs of the hard-science, engineering or comp-sci crowd are worth having. (For an example of the latter, maybe the maths for us living in a multiverse matches observations, but the maths for a hundred million invisible goblins playing tuning forks matches observations of every piece of recorded music too. Many physicists don't grok the difference between "the equations look like" and "the world actually is".)

Where I run into problems is with incestuous subjects where the only possible purpose of studying the subject is to study the subject some more. English Lit, for example - does it help you write better? Answer: no. If someone wants to go and study it because they're interested in it, I've absolutely no objection to that. But if they're expecting funding for it then I'd expect the same level of funding for going walking in the Peaks, say.


We have precisely the same thing going on in the United States, though from your time line we're a bit further along that path. What I'm fully expecting is another economic implosion similar to the housing crisis, but with student loans.

Most university degrees provide few if any job skills (lib arts) and cost upwards of $60K US, plus a pile of credit card debt. Students then get a job at $24,000 a year, if any job at all.

All those lib arts majors will start defaulting on loans. Then the banks are left holding a ton of worthless paper, and the government has to step in and fix it. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Except at the end the bank doesn't even have a house to repossess.

The funny thing is, I got my IT degree from a two year technical college and a bunch of certs, and most of the people I worked with had military training and no degree at all. Generally speaking, we got a lot more hands on IT training than the college graduates. The people freshly graduated from full university were, with the odd exception, laughably under qualified and over confident.

While they were talking about how computers made them feel we were taking classes in database design and administration. Yet oddly, most employers demand that bachelors, and then complain that the people they're hiring aren't qualified.

The same goes for art degrees. I started looking into art school and settled on the local tech college, because they made sure their graduates could actually, you know, draw something that looked like something, instead of sticking a shark in a tank of formaldehyde.

My wife has a four year degree in Asian Studies from a prestigious private school and can speak Mandarin. She got a job in sales that paid squat from that degree, and now makes more than I ever did as a network admin off her associates degree in nursing.

So not only are the universities charging a boatload, so far as I've been able to tell they're charging a boatload for less than what the tech schools already provide. This I believe is the result of competition. In order to compete for student dollars most universities are lowering the bar, while in the US the technical colleges are forced to conform to a mission of providing an education that leads to gainful employment.

As to the well rounded argument which I know is inevitable. If I want to be well rounded I'll gain weight. What the hell does that even mean? I read books every day, and I read the news, and I think as critically as the next college graduate. Roundedness is something that can be rammed into an 18 year old's brain via philosophy 101 and beer bongs is it?


Charlie, you say:

Meanwhile, individual workers may find that their increased earnings from acquiring the employment credentials leave them behind their peers who skipped out on higher education and went straight into a trade.

Is this really true? ISTR reading in a recent issue of The Economist that the UK and the US led in income differential between University graduates and not (I'll see if I can dig up a pointer, but I'm not expert with their web site).

There was certainly a time in the early internet bubble when one could leapfrog the credentialing process (and it may recur in web 2.0), but I'm not sure we should generalize from this transitional period and relatively small proportion of the working population.


Okay, here's the rub:

What is the difference between studying science, and the history of science?

What is the difference between studying art, and studying art history?

What is the difference between taking a course in creative writing, and studying the history of literature?

In each case, it boils down to one word: context. Or, to expand on it somewhat, it's not so much about being able to do X, as knowing why one would want to do X, how people used to try to do X, what changes to the methodology for doing X were productive, and what turned out to be dead ends.

I believe that in just about any field of intellectual endeavour, some awareness of context is essential if you intend to try to advance the state of current practice.

In my case: I write SF. I use my science education to get the S in SF at least vaguely right -- or to know when I'm bullshitting. Unfortunately for me, acquiring the education in S precluded gaining a broad education in F, so I'm an autodidact with huge holes in my reading and theoretical awareness. Consequently, the S may be rigorous but the F is probably much less so than it might be had I pursued a different educational track.


When did you last try to hire a plumber?


A plumber? Not long ago. And believe me he charged the bloody earth.

I should have drawn certain conclusions when he drew up in an Aston Martin DB9 and his "Boy" or apprentice drove the van.


About a decade ago, I attended a graduation ceremony at Queen's University Belfast.

A front page story that day concerned a suggestion that university tuition fees should be raised to £50,000 per annum.

When I mentioned this to a senior member of the anthropology department he burst out laughing - 'that would mean the end of higher education as we know it', being his verdict.

'Maybe that's what they want' was my response.

I am myself in sympathy with Frank Chalk's words quoted above. Unfortunately, an oft-overlooked factor is the insistence of bourgeois parents that their dufferesque children are in fact misunderstood genii, who should naturally be given university places ahead of some more talented scion of the proletariat.

Anyway, once again we live in interesting times. This latest twist in the evolution of HE is another case that resembles that of the gentleman who saws off the branch of a tree that he himself is sitting on. When the crash finally comes, it should at least be interestingly disastrous.


'Not only is there no God, but trying getting a plumber at weekends.' (Woody Allen)


Your claims may be true about athletics, but typically engineering and science research do not steal resources from education. Education and science provide a funding stream to research universities that's largely orthogonal.

I think there's a sense that science and engineering research may steal faculty focus from instruction, but having worked both in and with universities on the research side, there's money flow into the university from research that makes it possible for them to hire more faculty and build facilities.

If this is poorly done, it may not help instruction, but it does not steal resources from instruction.

Athletics is a whole other beast, and not one I'm qualified to speak about --- but I know US universities don't get NSF or DARPA funding for their football teams!


Isn't credentialism just an effect of "There simply aren't enough jobs of the type you people want to support you all, so we've got to come up with some way to weed folks out, and this is easy!"?

Most university degrees provide few if any job skills (lib arts) and cost upwards of $60K US, plus a pile of credit card debt. Students then get a job at $24,000 a year, if any job at all. All those lib arts majors will start defaulting on loans. Then the banks are left holding a ton of worthless paper, and the government has to step in and fix it. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Except at the end the bank doesn't even have a house to repossess.

Yes, and what inevitably happens (see your implied examples;) is that the gov't 'steps in and fixes things' by giving the bank lots of money, but doesn't, you know, attach any particular conditions or say 'this counts as payment for those loans'. So the bank is now solvent again, and the students still owe it USD60k each. At which point I suspect the financial industry lobbies for a law to allow them to extract repayments direct from welfare/benefits; perhaps even suggests that it could 'help' by being allowed to employ the debtors directly. At minimum wage, naturally, until they've finished repaying their USD60k at USD50/month....


I'm posting WITHOUT reading the intermediate postings - so warning. Also I'm speaking of England here, Scotland is different, and not so far down the same road.

First failure was to deliberately destroy selective school education. Please note, I DON'T mean "Grammar" sxhools, though they were good. What happened was that most comprehensives went over to "mixed-ability" teaching all the way to 16, and a lot still do. Result, a complete dumbing-down of the whole system. Rewarding academic or scholastic abilty was (and still is), in some circles, that almost-ultimate crime elitist .

Second failure was the Credentials bubble Charlie is talking about. We did not have enough U graduates, but the expansion was WAY too big. Secondary effect of this was expense of students in large numbers, which meant the end of the grants system - which helped to get us into the mess we are in now. As well as the expansion of non-subjects, such as sociology and media studies ...

Third failure: Principally down to the employers, who are STILL whingeing about being unable to get the "trained" staff: TRANSLATION: "WE want fresh, 22-year-old graduates, who ALREADY have a practical skill sets (from where?) and who will work for peanuts, without asking too many questions" If you are over 40, or have a real higher qualification, forget it.

I can assure you this is all true, as I've been a teacher, and I got an engineering M.Sc. at age 48 (itself not an easy task) I have NEVER been able to use that qualification professionally, and I'm now within 3 months of my 65th birthday....

Unusually, (or maybe not) I'm also highly practical, but no-one is interested in that, either. Although I have a first degree in Physics, as well as the M.Sc. I'm NOT ALLOWED TO EVEN APPLY for a job as, say an electrician, because I don't have that particular piece of paper, and I'd have to spend money I don't have getting it ....

Finally, almost NO politicians, and very few industrial employers really value scientific or technical knowledge. This may be the root cause of the problem, incidentally.


I've got a feeling that whatever happens, the Open University is about to undergo a growth spurt. Possibly even copied in other parts of the world.

That way you can at least work while working towards a degree and avoid all the debt. From what little I know employers like OU degrees because you have at least proved you have the discipline to work and study over a long period.

It would seem to satisfy most of the tick boxes. You get the bit of paper, avoid massive debt and try to earn an income. Not perfect I know, but it worked resonably well for me at least.


45 (Charlie) 51, 57 ... 50% going to U is completely unreachable. After all, the old "O"-levels were supposed to be hard enough that only 25-30% of the poulatiom could PASS them. Hence the dumbing-down of many subjects and exams - vigorously denied by guvmint OF COURSE.

As for hiring a plumber, or an electrician, I do it myself - but cannot get a job as either, for reasons previoulsly explained ....


In the US much credentialism is a side effect of laws designed to lower racial and gender inequality in hiring- if you hire a non-credentialed majority over a credentialed minority you have some serious explaining to do (and maybe rightfully so). This is especially true if your business interacts with a government agency of any kind.

I'm beginning to think the only way to provide a secure future for my daughters is to start my own business to hand to them, which kind of shoots the whole 'you can be whatever you want' line we feed our kids out of the water.


PrivateIron @11:

You can see several examples in this thread of people who think that only a certain percentage of the populace need booklearning.

What I'd like to ask those commentators is, what jobs do you expect the rest of the population to do, now that manual work has been largely automated and/or exported?


The kicker is, that when I have been involved in recruitment in a large multinational, recruiting into highly technical roles,(well, when the economic situation meant that we COULD recruit that is!) I really couldn't give a flying fig what bit of paper the candidate had in their back pocket. I was generally sifting CVs based on how interesting they were, in terms of experience, and in fact the attitude that came over in the CV.

I then saw how they performed in the interview, how good at lateral thinking they were, how personable they were, whether they would be a good fit in the team. Actually I put very little store in academic achievement. We built a world class team that way, many of whom have gone one to be recognised as leaders in our particular field.


I think specialisation is a good point here. Somebody else said it another way, but it is one of the components of Taylorism / Fordism. As Fordism moved beyond industry, and merged with the corporatisation of everything in the 1980's, then the 'system', ie. world, changed and education had to respond.

In the 1990's the Fordist virus spread to the public (including education) and service sectors and we got things like 'deliverology' where everything is measured and they set targets only on outcomes.

For centuries, the education system has been teaching reductionism and the scientific method as the primary form of reasoning (that is if they are not teaching to the test, in which case we have a generation of tool heads). According to Russell Ackoff we are starting to move beyond that. Either way the current situation is broken.

In the US things are kinda sorta the same. The funding thing is a lot more muddled. Its interesting to watch is the state universities where the proportion of funding from sources other than the state government is rising to the point where the state no longer is the majority funder and yet state governments still think they can kick them around the room at will. I see more and more state universities giving their state governments the finger in the not too distant future.


L.E Modesitt, Jr. recently blogged on the same theme in September. An article in the September 4 "Economist" was the activating event.


Conventionally, in the US, the glut of post-bachelor degrees is blamed on the baby boom. According to the old profs I had as a grad student (who started around 1970), what happened was that, from about 1969 onwards, a huge influx of college students flooded the US campuses. The institutions couldn't expand fast enough to handle the influx, so they switched from having a system where professors taught lecture, lab, and discussion, to one where the profs took on more graduate students and had them handle the lab teaching.

More graduate students meant more people to fill a fairly small number of professorships. Additionally, it meant that professors had to concentrate more on fund-raising. A lab is basically a small business anyway, and the professor has to make payroll each month. With each business being forced to grow, and with more labs competing for dwindling funding pools, the boss becomes the contract getter and the grad students, post-docs, and researchers become the technical staff. The surplus of grad students (including me) had to find something else to do with their shiny degrees. Keep inflating for a while, and add in corporate greed to the mix, where corporations want to pay less taxes (which support public universities) and also want to make more money off students by forcing them to pay for what the state no longer provided via taxes (for public schools, at least).

I don't think the demographic story is the entire story. For instance, did the UK collegiate population rise as much in the 70's as it did in the US? Still, it's important in the US, because of that old demographic shift.

Birth rates are falling in the US, and even in Mexico. I expect the US population to level off or even start falling within a decade. Without a steady stream of immigrants (which we may or may not get from elsewhere), some of the degree mills are going to go the rusty way of the automotive plants.

This is what happens when you attempt to industrialize and commodify knowledge, I guess. The suits want a piece of the action


There has been a flurry of blogging on the signalling model of education recently


From Wikipedia: "The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational and technical curricula emphasizing specialization."

What I'd like to see as a liberal arts degree probably doesn't exist, sadly. Ideally it would be a basic background in many fields and a toolbox of meta-level techniques to rapidly acquire the skills and knowledge you need on the fly.

Most of the stuff I do now didn't exist when I first went to university, and I'm working in biology (mostly computational), not even close to my fields of study (undergrad degrees in both Geology and Physics).

Watching the new technologies showing up in this field, my current skills are never going to be adequate to deal with the work I'll be doing a year later. Most people are in that position, though perhaps not intensely.

A LA degree, as envisioned above might help.


I suggest that the logic is less that of educational and skill requirements than that of social signalling. By attending (an American) college for four years, you demonstrate that you value access to a higher-end pool of jobs enough to (a) spend four or more years doing (possibly tedious) academic work, (b) stay out of the labor market for four years, and (c) go into debt by tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is, you are showing that you think that higher-end job has enough value to get you to pay a price for it.

But any social signal can be imitated by increasing numbers of people. When the majority of people in their twenties have university degrees, the discriminant value of those degrees becomes negligible. So it becomes necessary to signal even higher levels of commitment to gaining status through credentials.

There is a body of serious academic work on social signaling; I've only dabbled in it. But if you know the Darwinian theory of sexual selection you understand the essential concepts.


My understanding is that the 50% thing was an aspiration, not a direct target, and the gvt quietly dropped it a year or two ago, not wanting anyone to notice that they'd fouled up again.*

*It was odd talking to someone a couple of weeks ago who was vehemently against the tories but as soon as I tried to blame anything on Blair and Brown got a bit mad at me, despite the specific issues I was blaming them for being similar ones to what the tories like to do.


have you seen what the standard is of the GCSE now? you could probably sit down and pass any subject right now this minute, terrifying. this 'course work' thing, basically if giving good marks to people with neat writing who can copy off a whiteboard / book. we have photocopiers for that.


This is quite a scary summary of my current situation. As a Java Developer, I even met the plumber archetype you mention.

After 12 years of full-time employment, I've found myself unemployed with no-one answering my job applications (even with a rock-solid CV). Most of the big corporations in my city have staffed all the IT development departments with cheap Indian and Chinese labour. I have no grudge against Indian and Chinese workers, but I have every right to despise the political system that we've had since the 1980s.

Thatcher (and, indeed, Reagan) was the worse thing to happen to Western capitalism and New Labour's buying into Thatcherism was heart-wrenching.

My CV now feels exactly as you describe it; a devalued piece of paper.


Graham Bartlett said: I speak as someone who was told during an Electrical Engineering degree by his head of department: "We're not here to teach you what you need in your job, we're here to teach you what we think you should learn. This is not a vocational degree."

I was told the same thing by my college advisor in the Computer Science department 30 years back, in almost exactly the same words.

He was right.

If I had been taught "what I needed in a job", I would have been obsolete by 1990. With what they thought I should learn, I've easily picked up whatever I needed for specific jobs.

Maybe EE is different.

(I expect apprenticeship training to make a comeback (and be used in many newer fields); ubiquitous social networking will make it easier to verify personal recommendations, making paper credentials less valuable.)


Degrees and grades need to go out the window. Written evaluations from good professors are worth much more to an employer than "I graduated from XYZ quality institution with a B average (despite getting Cs in all programming related classes)!"

The UCSC experiment should have taken over.


"There are only two purposes for higher education: either it's practical training that you require to get a job afterwards; or it's simply learning for fun with no prospect of getting a job afterwards based on their course."

Or perhaps it turns out to be of unexpected value, or perhaps it can be a way for people to find out what they are good at. I like Theodore Sturgeon's comment, "Learning how to learn," too.


"I can’t help but note that one of the things that the humanities might be able to teach you, and which isn’t mentioned in the Browne report, is that it’s a terrible idea to be in the closet for forty years and then destroy your career and reputation in a pointless scandal."--dsquared over at Crooked Timber *


OU growth spurt? HEFCE will have to lift the cap on our student numbers first... We've been hitting it for the last couple of years.

Despite my not being a massive fan of many aspects of Eng Lit, I'm forced to step to its defence here: there are in fact some pretty systematic aspects to it. To take one example, if you take the OU introductory Arts course, (Y160 - soon to be Y180 with more pointz! and teh internet!) you'd spend about a third of the content dealing with poetry. You'd get to learn what a sonnet is, what metre, assonance and iambic pentameter mean, and how to analyse a poem systematically in order to recognise these techniques and analyse the effects the poet is trying for with them.

All for £120. Bargain, I call it, but I work for them, so I would anyway.


Thanks for going on about Thatcher. It's good to know the old ghosts are still there: it's all her fault, naturally. But...You could also point out that 13 years of socialism under the guise of the inept new labour that nothing was done except screw up education.

The effect of the comprehensive-rush of the 1970s with the subsequent 'and all shall have prizes' approach dominated by marxist dogmas and coupled with a complete inability to see what the students really needed has given us a very poor education system. The universities can only reflect the junk that has gone before.

I teach a few of the 16 and 17 and 18 year olds who have been squeezed out of the comprehensive sausage system. They dream of university because the State will pay for them, or so they thought. But then, they thought the State will pay for everything and they didn't need to do anything anyway.

And even better, you can study what no one wants. You have never been taught to think or taught to learn and someone will do it all for you. Thanks to copy and paste they don't have to think, don't have to work. Wikipedia has it all, and socialism will pay for it all.

Oops... that didn't work... never mind. The nice Mr Miliband will put it all right, won't he?


(Poetry) ...

  • blinks *

That stuff was part of the regular Eng. Lit. schooling I got aged 10-12. Pre-O-level, in other words.

The cognitive dissonance is gaining on me.


13 years of socialism under the guise of the inept new labour

What planet are you on?!?

New Labour was about as socialist as John Major.


You seem to start the rot in the 70's, then ignore that Thatcher et al had 18 years in which to try and clean the rot out but mysteriously didn't manage it, then of course we had 13 years of Blairite neo-thatcherism which can hardly be described as socialist, unless your definition of socialism is anything to the left of Thatcher. Centrist, liberal or whatever, I wouldn't use the word socialist for anything new labour came out with.


Yeah, I did it for O Level, too: but we don't have any entrance requirements, so at the start of first level we have to get everyone up to speed. The point is, Eng lit is not just bunch of asthetic choices, but involves systematic thought. Mostly.


Not for nothing as they say hereabouts, but I've always felt a decent plumber should be paid more than a Java developer.

Early in my adult life I overheard a new graduate working in the IT industry make a disparaging remark in a pub about the cost of a plumber. The man standing next to him was, of course, a plumber. He smiled big and said "How much do you think a plumber is worth then?" and pressed, good naturedly, until the unfortunate graduate gave an answer.

The plumber then delivered the whammy: "Pretend it's 11pm on a Sunday night and your lavatory just overflowed onto your bathroom floor after you flushed it. How much is a plumber worth now?"

My father was once part of the higher education system, at the sharp end. He taught industrial electronics in the 60s and 70s at a technical college. It's interesting to note that he was complaining of the same credential bloat back then, when he felt that all efforts were being put into making excuses for a student's poor performance in order to grant a qualification instead of failing them.


Egad! Sorry for the mangled grammar in that last bit. It seems that when I'm multitasking I'm actually just singletasking somewhere else.


My understanding is that the 50% thing was an aspiration, not a direct target, and the gvt quietly dropped it a year or two ago, not wanting anyone to notice that they'd fouled up again.

Not only was the 50% participation target an aspiration, but the basis on which it is measured, and the change in it over time, are widely misunderstood.

Blair's stated goal in 1999 was to get 50% of under-30s to take part in higher education by 2010. The fine print stated that this was an initial participation rate, so it was to include those students who failed to graduate.

In 1999/2000, the HEIPR (Higher Education Initial Participation Rate) for full-time students was 33.6% (part-time was 5.6%, with a combined HEIPR of 39.2%).

In 2006/2007, the full-time HEIPR was a whopping 34.0%, the part-time was 5.8% and the combined was 39.8%.

In short, participation rates did not appreciably grow over that eight year period. However, the number of entrants into HE increased over the same period (from 238k in 1999/2000 to 270k in 2006/2007) purely because the number of people in the 17-30 age range increased. The claims that it's all Labour's fault for putting 50% of young people through HE miss the point; HEIPR did not appreciably rise under Labour. The big increase in student numbers - almost a three-fold increase - happened between the late 1980s and the late 1990s (contemporary with the abolition of the binary divide between universities and polytechnics), and dwarfed the post-Robbins Report expansion of the 1960s.

This expansion didn't come with extra money, unfortunately. Per-capita student funding fell as student numbers increased, with roughly inflationary increases in total funding. The outcome of this is that staff:student ratios dropped from 1:9 in 1980 to 1:17 in 1999 (or 1:23 if research funding is excluded).

In short, the current crisis has been a long time in coming, and is largely the consequence of unfunded expansion between 1980 and 2000.

(if I may pimp my blog, I've collected a lot more information on this at )


Or, if you want a real bargain, want to know about a subject, and aren't too bothered about having the certificate to prove it:

I've been slowly working my way through 'The American Novel since 1945' - starting with the ones I've already read.

Coming late to this - I did a degree in artificial intelligence, decided that if there was one thing I did not want to do with the rest of my life it was programming computers, and went off into government policy-making. I still think the degree was worthwhile and has been of use to me in my subsequent working life in terms of teaching critical thinking and assessment of evidence in a way that school-level education never did. Whether it would be worth paying £50k for is another matter.


But this is a truism. Similarly, "What do you think a Java developer is worth? Well, imagine it's 10am on Monday and the container terminal scheduling application just shat itself/the cash machine authorisation system started paying out random £100 wads/your PC BSODd with a ton of stuff on deadline in RAM..."

More to the point, just as any number of Java developers won't replace your plumbing, you wouldn't be able to substitute the guy with any number of plumbers. The whole structure of economics only becomes apparent in the aggregate - between you and your toilet, or your fried Tomcat server, you're not meaningfully indifferent between plumbers and Java developers at any price. Trades aren't good substitutes for each other - that's why they exist. You need to solve your specific problem, and even money itself is only of use in that you can hand the problem to someone else.


I believe he is still on planet earth, just the other side of the pond. It certainly sounds like the right-wing lunacy being dished out over here.

Remember your rundown of your political parties for 'merkins? (Socialists, socialists, socialists, socialists, and democrats (socialists). It was very accurate, given the current US rubric.) That means the tax-cut zombies would categorize Blair and Brown as solid socialists.

My apologies, I'm really hoping this is just a short bout of future shock.


The fun thing is that you can play that game with most degrees, i.e. how much is a chemistry graduate worth, not a lot, unless you need to work out how to keep producing armaments in the face of a blockade, or need to clean up some pollution you've been creating for the last 50 years...

But of course such argument lends itself towards the a degree is only useful if it has a purpose side, which I think many people, including our host, disagree with. The wider societal value of a degree however is obviously a bit harder to measure. Actually, make that the process of getting a degree and being forced to jump through various hoops and have your brain trained into thinking in certain ways. I've just finished doing an MSc in a new subject, and it is amazing how you useful it is to have to rethink things, learn new stuff and so on. I've managed to forget the point of what I was going to say. Ahh well.


To make a long story short, our modern educational system has been wrecked because of its success at grabbing the reins of the power back in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

In other words, it's all the Mugwumps' fault.

Here's and amusing if prolix little attempt to explain what this means:


Oh, and also:

The reason we have a qualifications arms race has nothing to do with that shibboleth, "Thatcherism," and everything to do with the success of the universities in relentlessly discrediting and prohibiting their one major competitor in the marketplace: intelligence testing.


OK, fun though this nit-picking about details may be, let's step back and take a look at Charlie's question: what's going on? Why does credentialism exist? What are the historical processes operating here?

Economists like to call education "human capital". From this perspective, there are two things going on. One, the rate of depreciation of this kind of capital has accelerated. Two, it is more abundant, so its value in the production process is much lower than before. Less scarce, lower price: markets in action.

Switching now to a system dynamics point of view, the response from policymakers, faced with a situation in which the majority are gaining less and less from education, has been to say "if a little education [to age 12, or 16] isn't helping any more, then we need ... more! harder! longer!!"

This is a classic "limits to growth" system trap. Initially, having more educated people paid off very well. Later, the payoff from adding more tertiary-educated people decreased, and now we're at the point where returns are negative.

OK, now the economic historian's view, in two bites. First, macrohistory.

Before the British Agricultural Revolution, employment was concentrated in agriculture. Developments in Europe from about 1100 AD, in particular the idea of Law as something fixed and not merely the whim of the ruler, and the professionalization of war, which made money necessary, laid the ground work for the development of Capitalism. What has enabled it to grow for six hundred years has been a continuous decrease in the cost of communication. (Adam Smith writes entertainingly on the importance of low transport costs for prosperity.)

The British Agricultural Revolution "released" (don't you love these euphemisms?) lots of people from agriculture, and the invention of caravels and sugar plantations provided the calories to sustain them. There was huge latent demand for cloth, so the "surplus labour" was absorbed into spinning and clothmaking. Clothmaking was the industrial revolution in the early years. (Yes, coal mining, etc., but clothmaking was the motor for the whole thing.) The application of the techniques of the British Agricultural Revolution, and later steamships and refrigeration, in the "empty" colonies of Canada, Australia and NZ allowed Britain to go through its demographic transition without a Malthusian catastrophe.

Fast forward to the 1960s. Containerisation meant an accelerated decline in transport costs, making production labour the dominant cost of manufacturing. Fortunately for capitalists, automation was at hand. By the end of the 1980s, numerical control had swept aside manual machine operation. The automation of manufacturing displaced labour into services, at the same time raising the required levels of numeracy, literacy, and abstract cognitive skills (planning, co-ordination, etc). Most services require significant literacy, interpersonal and higher reasoning skill. The resultant demand for "skillz" started the credentialist boom.

In summary, employment has moved from agriculture, to manufacturing, to services. Now it's moving on from there, thanks to decreasing communication costs, and the automation of information acquisition and processing. The "arms race" among employees was bound to happen: competition for increasingly scarce jobs was bound to take some form. That it's taken the form of sheepskins is an accident of the history of Western policy.

Returning to the system dynamics viewpoint for a moment, the correct policy response to a "limits to growth" system trap is to remove the source of the limitation. In this case, that means finding a new kind of work -- not agriculture, not manufacturing, not services -- that can employ a third or more of the working-age population.

Where will employment appear next? Is there anywhere?

I've probably said enough for one comment, so I'll defer history bite two, explication of the mechanisms. [Dammit, now I need to take out my first paragraph, and recast para two...]


I actually passed my Eng. Lang. O-level early, in November rather than June, which bounced me into the "upper" set for Eng. Litt., but I don't recall anything about poetry from school. I learned more about sonnets from IASFM.

And I'm a few years older than you, Charlie.

I think one thing the modern credentialism might have done is put some pressure on the teachers to meet a standard. I wonder if some of the teachers I recall (Very proud of their Oxbridge MA degrees, they were) would have kept their jobs in the current world.


I think we're missing one of the primary purposes of tertiary education.... as a signalling mechanism.

Leave with a 2:1 degree in almost any subject and you are signaling that you have the intellectual heft to take on board a subject at a certain level of difficulty as well as the motivational/organizational skills to take that learning and, in an unstructured environment, turn it into whatever formulated response is required to get the top results. You have to show a certain level of being able to take in complex inputs, re-formulate them and provide notionally "correct" outputs largely unsupervised.

As we know from evolutionary biology (and/or economics), for such signals to be worthwhile they have to be "expensive", so they cannot be easily faked. Hence the peacocks tail and the 3 year undergraduate degree.

IMO this is the primary way university education is used today.... I remember when doing the milkround myself back in 2000/1/2 most companies asked for a "2:1 or better, we don't in which subject". They were after an unfakeable signal of a certain level of intelligence/competence and little more.

However the system changes over the coming decades, it will still have to provide that signal. In the past it was probably satisfied by the much more rigorous O/A levels. Now it's undergraduate, or even graduate, degrees that signal that level of competence.

Any future system will have to include a similarly unfakeable signal of basic intellectual / organizational competence.

As far as I see it, the learning was fun, but was almost a byproduct of the whole enterprise. The signal WAS the product as far as I (and employers) were concerned.




New Labour was about as socialist as John Major.

Indeed - explicitly and self identified neo-liberals are neo-liberals.

and everything to do with the success of the universities in relentlessly discrediting and prohibiting their one major competitor in the marketplace: intelligence testing.

So wait, you're saying the reason why the market place is flooded with too many entrance level job applicants, is because employers do not waste money performing costly hoodoo driven intelligence tests upon job applicants?

Even if intelligence tests were outsourced to external bodies so that they made some kind of economic sense to use, the slight trouble would then be that you'd have a cottage industry spring up around training job applicants to get exceedingly high scores on those intelligence tests, leading to a remarkably strong flynn effect (which would be funny to see the bell curve advocates integrate into their concept of g) and a new metric will be looked for by employers... leading to exactly the same sort of credential inflation we have now, but it would produce a bust in the intelligence test related industry at the same time.

The trouble is that while a plumber is useful when your pipes burst, what that ultimately means is that the worth of being trained in plumbing is relative to the number of broken pipes - and much of what is happening with degrees is that the worth of degrees is adjusting from the thatcherite/neo-liberal concept of education being a panacea that imbues intrinsic worth upon the owner of it unless they are... sinful, is probably the best word, and moving towards the value various degrees have in the job market as it exists in reality.

If the job market was made up of work that required specific degrees, then much of the problem would disappear.


@ 25:

I've recently come to the conclusion that a big part of the problem is that the institutions providing the training for the credentials are also doing the granting of the credentials; this creates a conflict of interest as they will try to graduate as many as possible to increase revenue. There's a bubble right there.

Here in America, at least, that's considered a feature. I don't know what the base culture is like in Merry Olde England, but here in the States education in and of itself is not prized, nor is it the mark of the Superior Person.

Quite the contrary.

It is, however, sought after as a bit of paper one needs to get that decent job. In a bit of reverse-causality, a huge percentage of parents here have absolutely no problem with pressuring the administrators of first the High schools and then the colleges to lower standards - at least for their own kid - so that they get passing grades and that piece of sheepskin that shows the little darling is a fer sure bona fide kollej graduate. But as for actually knowing stuff, "practical" or otherwise? Why does their kid need any of that, wonder the progenitors, if they've got the diploma? And so while I can (and do) say a lot against school administrators, on this issue I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for their position in this regard.

Having taught a number of years myself, I understand just how much pressure parents are willing to bring to bear to make sure that their precious gets credentialed, whether they're actually qualified or not: I've had parents come in and demand - demand! - not just a C but a B for someone who's been absent five of sixteen weeks, who's turned in less than half the homework and missed three of twelve quizzes and averaging a 58% on their exams. My fault, doncha know, for not 'engaging them', or for failing to 'adopt a suitable teaching style'.

So while having an independent institution administer evaluations sounds like a good idea, in practice it would either be fought tooth and nail by the people who don't want independent appraisals, or it would be subverted very early in it's creation to give the "right" results.


Charlie @56: I entirely agree.

Which is where the problem comes in. As you say, you'd study the history of science to discover why we do things a particular way, with a view to doing things better in future. But if your S training required more time spent discussing Newton's methodology than doing astronomical observations yourself, and the majority of professors spent their days inventing new interpretations of Newton's writings instead of actually looking down a telescope, how useful would that S training have been?

That's where literature goes wrong, for one easy target. There's a zillion unis out there where you can study literature. How many of those literature degrees feature actually writing new literature as a major part of the course? Damn few, is the simple answer.

I also don't buy the liberal-arts-making-you-a-better-person argument. The people I've met who've been most driven to learn new stuff have all been older, and started without formal education. They've then found something they really wanted to do, and that's given them the drive to really go out and learn it. Simply churning kids out of sixth form, through uni and out the other side will not accomplish the same result.


@79 Ed G:

When your Elec Eng course in the mid-90s makes only the vaguest pretense of teaching software (the students only got an OO software module added through mass request), and when it doesn't have any mention at all of embedded software, FPGAs, thin-film, fuzzy logic, safety engineering, or design for manufacture/test (hell, any concept at all that electronics might exist in a real world); but it does have a department stuffed full of power-engineering guys and a course top-heavy with modules in that; then it's a fair bet that something's wrong.

I don't mind not being taught the specifics. I do mind not being taught the fundamentals of modern electronics when the guys running the course are stuck in 1950.


@ 46:

Which leads to the other problem in the UK - technical education is abysmal. Think craft design & technology: my daughter has 'designed' three pizzas in her school career; CADCAM? CNC machining? You're mad to even think about it. Contrast with Germany, where a trained waiter (2 - 3 years!) can come to the UK, slot in to a high end Italian place and he already knows all the wines on the list, because he's studied them.

Yet another problem we've been experiencing for the last forty years in the good old U.S. of A. See, one of the problems we have here is that all policymakers and most of the general populace pay lip service to the importance of education (for certain values of education), but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is . . .

This is the number one reason why vocational training is the pathetic mess it is here in the U.S.; the sad truth is that compared to "preparing an individual for the rigors of higher eduction", vocational training is expensive. You want to do some college prep in English, all you need is a classroom, the right books, and perhaps a teacher who has advanced qualifications in Lit. You want to teach welding, real welding as it is done in industry, you're going to have to purchase state-of-art equipment costing millions or tens of millions of dollars as well as the insurance required to make such a project feasible for high school aged people.

And while a school board might - grudgingly - fork over an extra $10K a year for a college prep lit class, there's no way they're going to okay funding running into the millions just to set up the proper facilities for vocational training. That wouldn't be a prudent use of resources, doncha know.

God I hate these people. People who in fact are all too often my neighbors, or are at least representative of them.


One more quick statement on the plumber thing.

My grandmother, who is now in the grave for nearly 20 years, was a life long communist. One of the Clydeside Reds of yesteryear. She said to me, as a fairly young man, that there are three jobs on this earth that will alyways be needed.

  • Doctors. To bring you into this world.

  • Undertakers. To take you out of this world.

  • Plumbers. For just about everything else in between.

  • 107:

    Over here in the Australian education system, I'm part of generation X, which effectively labels me as "screwed" from start to finish. When I was going through high school, our curriculum was in the process of being restructured (several times - I wound up dealing with about three different curriculum structuring systems in three years of compulsory lower high school) and re-evaluated. Then, the year before I started university (so, the year I was supposed to be studying for my university entrance exams) the Federal government decided to remove all the various subsidies which had been in place for the baby boomer generation (because, let's face it, they'd all finished university, so clearly nobody needed them any more) and introduce fees for tertiary study. I started my first university education in 1989, and was in the first year of fee paying students - and I was in the first round of people who wound up with a HECS debt as a result.

    I still don't have a degree, although this is more an artifact of chronic depression and multiple relocations than of the Australian higher education system.

    I'm back at uni again, studying computer science (because at 39, I'm apparently too old, too fat and too female to be employable in tech support any more) because I obviously need either the degree or the industry certs (and there's a whole post in those too, isn't there...) in order to be able to compete with younger, maler entrants into the workforce. Never mind I've been doing tech support for years, and I'm good at it - my CV has more bit rot than would seem possible, so I'm back to uni again. And something I'm noticing: this generation of kids in 2010 are a lot more conservative even than my peers back in 1989. There's something about coming out of uni with a degree and a whopping great debt to service which encourages a species of political timidity - just keep your head down and hope they don't notice you, so you can get this whopping great debt off your back.

    As a mature aged student, I'm one of the people professors and administrators dread. I can only comment on my particular case, but I suspect the dread is because mainly, mature-aged students are aware firstly of the size of the debt they're incurring, and secondly, of the reduced amount of workforce time they'll have to pay it off. There's also the happy truth that today's mature-aged students are people who have had extensive experience with the workforce, the education system and the economic system as she are mismanaged today, and therefore we will call bullshit when we recognise it.

    By the bye - the degree I'm now studying toward (and planning on completing, god willing and the crick don't rise) is my fourth. It's also the first science degree I've studied. All my previous three efforts were firmly in the Arts. What an interest in the Yartz (as it's called in Strine) did for me was got me firmly interested in the why of things, such that what I'd prefer to be studying now is something along the lines of "the history of computing - how did it become so ubiquitous?" Unfortunately, that course, while it would be invaluable for CS students (explaining why they're learning what they're learning, and possibly pointing at new directions the field would be heading in) would belong firmly to the History faculty if the university I was studying at ever offered it, and therefore wouldn't make itself onto the CS curriculum.


    The tertiary education sector is competing in a global marketplace with institutions that are part of the American higher education bubble (with 700% fee increases over two decades).


    Prognosis: bleak. What's actually happening here is a credentials bubble bursting.


    Someone please tell me I'm misreading the situation and being overly pessimistic ...?

    Sadly, no.

    Graham Bartlett @26: The bubble definitely needs bursting. The question no-one seems to be asking in the media is simply "what do we need higher education for?"

    Meanwhile we have ourselves a problem, which is what to do with people whose minds aren't set up to succeed at knowledge-based work. There used to be plenty of skilled manual work available, but 30 successive years of politicians have ensured that it's all been shipped over to India/China/wherever. The only work left is the "service industry", which by definition is a zero-sum game economically. Hence the deflationary situation, bcos there's too few people generating real value.

    I graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering in the late 70s. I went to work for the Highway Department and used less than 90% of the knowledge that I was required to study, and pay for at University. I would have been better off coming straight in after High School. The Designers running squads only had High School diplomas, did all of the work, with the Engineers merely managing staff. I had Designers retiring at 44 making more money than I as a Staff Engineer ever made. I literally retired making less money than the High School educated Designers that worked for me.

    In the last ten years of my career I watched as those Engineers, disconnected from real day-to-day work, dismantled the Department and farmed out our Design Jobs at three times the cost. We went from 20 Design Squads that built the Interstate system to 20 guys with nothing to do.

    Greg @98: In summary, employment has moved from agriculture, to manufacturing, to services. Now it's moving on from there, thanks to decreasing communication costs, and the automation of information acquisition and processing. The "arms race" among employees was bound to happen: competition for increasingly scarce jobs was bound to take some form. That it's taken the form of sheepskins is an accident of the history of Western policy. Returning to the system dynamics viewpoint for a moment, the correct policy response to a "limits to growth" system trap is to remove the source of the limitation. In this case, that means finding a new kind of work -- not agriculture, not manufacturing, not services -- that can employ a third or more of the working-age population.

    Here in the US we have a 15% permanent underclass of unemployed. They are literally excess population that we have no work for, the blue collar industries vanished in the 80s, and that percentage is growing.

    20090417 | BILL MOYERS

    The fact that these really are the excess people in America, we-- our economy doesn't need them. We don't need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we're actually including them in the American ideal, but we're not. And they're not foolish. They get it.

    20091106 | NewsHour | Freelancers Struggle As Unemployment Worsens in U.S.

    SARA HOROWITZ, founder, Freelancers Union: Some people used to think, you know, freelancer, it's a euphemism for people unemployed. But, actually, it is really all of us. It's people that work in technology, in finance, in real estate, in -- domestic workers, graphic designers, artists. It's across the whole economic spectrum. And it is in fact a third of the work force is now working like this. PAUL SOLMAN: You can't be serious. A third of the work force? SARA HOROWITZ: Yes, according to the General Accounting Office, a third of the work force. And, really, what happens matters is, what is happening to the human beings who are doing these jobs, and how do we make it that they have a real and profound safety net?

    In an older thread Charlie asked what the next bubble was. The Education Bubble is one, the Employment Bubble is tied into that, they feed each other. Sad to say, as the world becomes middle class, more and more people become redundant, not needed to keep the world running.


    Actually, there is an excellent article on just this topic in the latest London Review of Books. Programmes that teach students how to write new literature are called Creative Writing and are actually very common in the US, Canada, and Britain. The reviewer points out exactly what our host has pointed out, but in considerable more length: Creative writing without any historical and literary context is ignorant and self satisfied at best and very bad at worst.


    We've already done this in the US. Look how well it worked here!


    I have been a network engineer for 20 years, but my degree was in Anthropology. I am continually amazed at how, over the past two decades, the world has filled up with specialists who are incapable of abstracting patterns from a mass of details to see the bigger picture. Or in the rare cases that they can excel at abstracting general rules from a mass of observed behaviors, they'll be incapable of writing a clear concise description of what they've observed to convey that information to others.

    The other day, I was talking to a product management person (Marketing) who had an EE degree (he's a very technical fellow, and he may very well have more raw intelligence than I have). But I mentioned to him that networking protocols had gone though their Cambrian explosion in the early 90s, and that all the current developments in networking protocols are just tweaks to the basic morphology of Ethernet and IP -- which were the two protocols that were left over after they caused the mass extinctions of many exotic and proprietary network protocols. He looked at me puzzled. I had to explain evolution, and a brief history of life on Earth, and how similar network protocol evolution was to the what happened after the Cambrian explosion. He didn't believe me, and argued that if we could come up with a better protocols than Ethernet or IP, they'd catch on with customers. Hmmm. I think he needs to broaden his educational horizons just a wee bit, otherwise he's going to lead some corporation on a technical boondoggle that will waste millions of dollars of capital in development and marketing costs. If I were malicious, I might entice him into reinventing token ring. After all, he's probably never heard of token ring...


    Could it be that the majority of people rightly perceive that the granting of qualifications on the basis of actual talent is against their interests?

    A system that rewards effort and perseverance instead of merit will at least give their children a fighting chance against those with God-given talents.

    If the government pays for education, it gets to select who is granted an education. In a user-pays system, if you want an education you can simply take out a loan and buy it.

    People are not voting to change the system as a whole into a better system, they are voting to adjust the system so as to give their families a fighting chance within it.


    Here's a simple rule of thumb - whenever a company says they can't get the staff for reason 'x' what's really going on is that they're not willing to pay to get staff with quality 'x' at the going rate.


    If I had been taught "what I needed in a job", I would have been obsolete by 1990. With what they thought I should learn, I've easily picked up whatever I needed for specific jobs.

    Maybe EE is different.

    I did my Master of Science (EE) degree in TKK in Finland, and while I was never said that, I was taught that way. We have these "Universities of applied sciences" or whatever now, who at least ten years ago seemed to teach the tools instead of theory. Not a lot of them where I work now, though. Most people seem to have university degrees.

    Of course, I haven't used that EE degree much, having a job first in radio astronomy and then as a software developer. I try to keep up somewhat by reading and trying to build stuff on my free time. I think I could manage to learn proper EE jobs still.

    Oh, and I could've used more LA. Now I read also literature and social sciences and stuff. Sadly the atmosphere at the Technological University was somewhat opposed to "humanities", so I stupidly ignored much of it.



    Book Piracy ... AKA the death-of-publishing-as-we-konw-it, is here, according to the author. As Our Host has predicted. Note that he does this with reference to a new I M Banks' Culture novel. YAY!


    Wrote a long rant about my educational history then deleted it. Currently I handle recruitment for a small company and when we advertise a position [14Kpa FT GCSE's A-C admin and sales based]We get roughly 100 applicants from the whole spectrum of society so we have to do some serious weeding to even get to a shortlist. After removing the shockingly bad ones [including personal photos with I am not an axe murderer written on them] we end up with a few graduates and others. Of these most of their qualifications are blatent lies. Mostly about where they attended and what the results were but we usually get a few professors, polymaths and other geni in each batch. I suspect that with the qualifications creep these people apply hoping that noone is going to check up and will be able to get higher paying jobs than they would otherwise


    I didn't realise there was a limit. Do you know why that is?


    @ 100 & others Signalling Mechanism. OK? NO

    I have 10 "O"-levels, and 4 "A" levels, the latter from 1964, when they really meant something. A Physics 1st degree and an M.Sc. in Engineering. I've worked in industrial rsearch, and I've been a teacher. Yet, from age 49, I have not been able to hold on to any decent job, and NEVER able to use my professional (SIGNAL) qualifications ....

    So there is something worng wrong somewhere ...

    @ 107 Take your point about Uni staff dreading experienced mature students ... Mind you, they HAD to pass me out of the M.Sc. course: I found and PROVED a mistake in one of the exam papers - during the exam time-limits. Oops.

    @ 111 Spot on. Doing Physics, then working in industry, then doing my M.Sc. - I understand systems, and their interlockings and feedbacks. To me, it's obvious, but huge numbers of people, including far too many "managers" still don't get it.

    @ 113 YES!


    Did you not miss out the Nu-Labour years where they seemed to want to push everyone into HE? Some say that was so everyone could enjoy the benefits of HE and others suggest it had a desirable impact on the unemployment figures!

    Polys become Unis: I was at Kingston Polytechnic when it was one of the top 3 Polys for Computer Science. When they became a Uni they approached me to see if I wanted to swap my Poly degree for new Kingston University degree and I declined as it's now a Also-Ran university!

    Higher Education shouldn't be for everyone. If it was supposed to be for everyone it would just be called "Education"! IMO the problem stems from the 'results creep' from A- and O-levels (or whatever the hell they're called this week!) and I'd put that squarely on the shoulders of the socialists who seem to feel that if everyone doesn't get the same grade it must be 'unfair'. The old marking scheme involved giving the top, say, 10% of students from a specific exam an "A" grade, the next 15% a "B", and so on - resulting in a "bell curve" distribution of marks, which would accurately reflect the ability of the population. The new(lab?) scheme gives everyone with over, say, 90% in the particular exam an "A" grade, 75% to 90% a "B" grade, and so on - resulting in an inaccurate picture of the population. Combine that with the "dumbing down" (and ask the universities if they have to start by teaching what used to be considered A-level stuff to their new students if you don't believe it!) results in far more "A" grades, which opens the door to far more students to go on to HE, and given the choice of "Uni" or "Work" ...

    I think the old grants system was great, but there's something to be said for the loans because it gets the potential student to consider whether the course will actually help them get work at the end! It is also perhaps worth noting that if you become a teacher the loan is paid down for you (I think!). So, do your degree, then a BEd course (an extra year), then spend a few years as a teacher, giving back to the community and having your loan paid off, then go out into industry. This has the added benefit for society that some may decide teaching is great and stay there, and also, for the individual, giving them an extra string to their bow for the hard times!


    Greg: your problem is nothing to do with education and everything to do with a particularly insidious form of discrimination which, happily, NuLab finally got around to making illegal in the dog days of the last government (and which AFAIK the NuTories haven't neutered).


    That stuff was part of the regular Eng. Lit. schooling I got aged 10-12. Pre-O-level, in other words.

    I'm about your age, and none of that was in my pre-O-level English. With no exams to set the syllabus what was taught was up to the teacher and the school.

    Come to think of it, we didn't do anything about formal verse for O- or A-Level Eng. Lit. either - the syllabus was tight-focused on three or four set texts so there wasn't much room for context. We did learn the basics of close-reading at A-level, though.

    All of which is to say that there is (was?) more contingency in the basic syllabus than you might think, so it's not really possible to draw a conclusion about "kids these days" from what the OU is teaching.

    (I'll admit to bias here - I've always had a strong preference for free verse, so I've never felt the lack of a toolkit for analysing formal poetry.)


    Speaking as an early baby-boomer born in Oz 1947, it would be well to remember that the "free" University education via Commonwealth Scholarships (in Australia) ostensibly available to everybody, were in reality taken up by those folk whose parents (comfortable middle-class) had the foresight to limit their offspring to 1 or 2 children. If you were poor and/or came from a large family, the costs of getting someone to university entrance standard were too high (the comfy MC'ers could go round 6th form for a second go to improve the marks if necessary). There were those bright folk who managed to get a degree despite their backgrounds. (No, I was not one of them, too idle/butterfly mind!) The present arrangement of loading young folk up with debt for their education is really unsupportable. Part of the "social contract" between the state and its people in a modern democratic nation is the provision of a complete education to whatever level necessary to fit the person for a valuable and fulfilling life.

    123: 39, 40 and 42 - When I said "liberal arts" I meant things like the study of English literature, ancient Greek and Latin. I'd class "creative writing", musical composition, and "making new paintings and sculptures" as "creative arts", along with acting, dancing, playing instruments and singing. I'll agree that there's always a market for competent (or better) performers in creative arts. 74 - Yes, that's a valid point, but is the definition of LA necessarily what most people would mean by LA?

    As to their value in government, may I refer you to Mssrs Jay and Lynn's seminal work on the subject "Yes (Prime) Minister"?

    46 - I used to know someone who made no bones about the fact that he was trying to keep his income just below the threshold for repayment of his student loan.
    124: 119 - And the rest. I know someone who knows a maths prof at an "old uni" in Scotland, and says that said prof says "off the record" that he is now teaching "first years "(Freshers for North America) stuff which was in the Scottish O-grade syllabus (taken in year 11 of a 12 or 13 year system) 20 years ago. 121 - I couldn't swear as to whether it was quite as early as Charlie suggests, but certainly we were studying the mechanics etc of poetry by O-Grade (qv) in Scotland. I'm 2 years older than Charlie is; my sis is 2 years younger, and did the same syllibii as I did where we did the same subjects.

    Charlie, while I think you're quite right, I personally would suggest that "thatcherism" and 1979 have little to do with it. This course has been charted elsewhere (e.g. was happening in the US well before the UK).

    Compare and contrast with Switzerland which has maintained (reasonably well) an apprenticeship system. Tertiary education is required for employment where that degree of knowledge is necessary.


    Did you not miss out the Nu-Labour years where they seemed to want to push everyone into HE? Some say that was so everyone could enjoy the benefits of HE and others suggest it had a desirable impact on the unemployment figures!

    See my earlier comment on participation rates.

    The 50% HEIPR target was announced in 1999, at which time the economy was on the up and up after the slump of the early 90s; the total number of claimants was already down to around 1.1M from a previous peak of around 3M in October of 1992 (figures from NOMIS). Put simply, there wasn't the need to manipulate the unemployment figures down, and the rhetoric from Labour at the time put the emphasis on the benefits of higher education in and of itself, and as that which enabled recipients to more fully participate in a knowledge-based economy.

    127: 124 - I'm three years younger than Charlie, and went to school in Bucks and Oxon. My situation is complicated by the fact that I went from a state primary into the private school system, but this was before the National Curriculum so I think my point about contingency stands. We "did" various poems, of course - we were even forced to memorise a few - but I don't remember anyone explaining the formal structure of a sonnet, or anything like that.

    The O- and A-Level syllabus wouldn't vary between private and state schools but at that time regional boards set the exams and there was a lot of geographic variation. (I know this because tutorial colleges used to play the system by picking over the alternatives - you weren't actually required to use your region's syllabus.) So there was quite a lot of room for contingency there, too - I think Shakespeare was the only real universal.

    All this is IIRC, obviously.


    Excellent Article.

    And yes the education boom/bust is not just a British Phenomenon.

    I managed to experience a preview of it here in Australia.

    Private Institution, Government Help (or HELP as they call it here) My degree was designed to service a specific industry. My intake (2006) consisted of less than 60 students. 4 years later, the industry is full (to collapse) many graduates unable to find work, and the University brags about its largest intake yet, almost 400 students.

    In this time, the University has increased its annual fees by 15%, decreased the amount of money it spends on student services, teachers(down from a minimum of 3 per discipline, to a minimum of one) and equipment.

    In my experience i have found that (Brisbane Especially) Further Education has become a retail industry. The Institution sells you on a particular lifestyle in exchange for charging up to 5 times as much as a less specialised degree from a public institution. However, as many of my colleagues have realised, in alot of cases there are no jobs waiting at the end of the cycle.

    Just my 2 cents.


    I would add, before I get sucked any deeper into this, that in my experience discussions that start with "what are they teaching them in schools these days?" end with everyone simultaneously complaining that (a) nothing they were taught in school was the slightest use and (b) that teaching the Youth of Today(TM) something different is a sign of the inevitable downfall of civilization. This, as far as I can tell, is because the real question (and one that's closer to what Charlie asked) is "what do we want our education system to be for?", and that requires actual thought to answer.

    (I admit to bias here, too, inasmuch as I think the entire education system should be burned to the ground and replaced with a less fucked-up version of Summerhill. But that's not really a useful suggestion for Lib-Dem education policy.)

    130: 126 - Sam, I'm not saying that anyone else is wrong in their statement of personal mileage (but I'd forgotten about different regional boards possibly having different syllibii so fair play there); I'm saying that other people's mileage does vary, so the only statement that is wrong is "my school's syllabus covered $this, therefore all syllibii at [level] did so".

    Yes, but why do we have a qualifications arms race?

    We have a capitalist free market economy that values competition over co-operation. Academia lives within the economic system, not apart from it, and is thus subject to its influence.

    This results in careers that are well funded by the economy receiving more funding for tuition and abstract research that has no direct economic value taking a back seat.

    Historically, governments and institutions have tried various tactics to shield education from the free market so that vocations that are important to society but not rewarded by the free market are maintained. However, it is always a loosing battle as the government and institutions are also at the whim of the free market.


    Yes, thats it: "what do we want our education system to be for?"

    A very good question. I fully expect it to be ignored by politicians, because it involves actually engaging with the issues rather than doing what benefits themselves or feels good ideologically.

    Of course answering the question would need another thread.


    There's another nasty feedback loop here, and a connection to your recent topic of Future Shock.

    The rate of change in technology and science is now very high, and arguably still increasing. Highly specialised vocational education is valid and relevant over ever shorter timespans. A broader eduction in general principles which equips you to adapt to change would seem like a much better idea. Good luck finding a job on the basis of that non-specific qualification, though.

    On the other hand, the essential attributes and qualifications to work as a bureaucrat (in HR, let's say), and/or a professional office politician, change much more slowly. Bingo! (Relative) job security. And of course, bureaucrats love credentialism, for obvious reasons.

    My thanks to SimonC @116 for explaining why very few of my job applications in the last five years have even rated a reply: my unvarnished CV instantly qualifies me for the 'polymath/genius' discard pile.


    Your thoughts on what happens then' are not nearly exploitative enough for the US. There's a concise <a href="">infographic on the topic</a> that made the rounds a short while ago, but the summary is: the government made it hard to escape education debt, encouraged more people to get on the treadmill, and then set itself (and a few friends, of course) up to profit from the results. Since then, it's gone fromhard' to impossible' and fromencouraged' to `nearly required'.


    Hey, token ring was a lovely system, technically. Fragile as hell, but in principle better than ethernet in terms of load management -- if you can get rid of the race conditions properly and are willing to pony up for the more expensive hardware...

    I have a masters in English and a degree in Law, but I work as a Unix/C++ developer. (OK, I did a minor in maths as well.) Very little of what I learned has "direct" bearing on what I do. But indirectly ... hard to say. All of them certainly helped with how I understand and interact with society, though, and particularly in areas of historical awareness. The people who went through for straight technical training may (sometimes) be able to code, but they tend not to do so well as designers and analysts. And they do very badly at documenting systems, or writing project proposals.


    Well, something that might have been mentioned before: Apprentices used to be educated on the job at the cost of the employer. Once the state stepped in and those state sponsored jobs gained in popularity in the ob market. It also showed a way for companys to safe money. Why educate, when you can get that done for free via the route of tax payer money that is by and large being paid by the workers since taxing large corporations is a science in itself these days.

    I'm not saying this was the desired outcome. It just happened to go into this direction. Then the trend got enforced through market dynamics...


    Personally speaking, I'd like our education system to be for teaching people:

    • to think rationally
    • to search out and evaluate relevant evidence
    • to find ways of solving problems, transferring them from one nominal discipline to another if necessary
    • to analyse situations and work out what tools are relevant
    • to accept criticism and change their opinions on the basis of evidence (without feeling threatened by it)
    • to identify and, where possible, defeat their own internal biases

    and above all:

    • to learn how to learn things.

    Good courses, in both science and arts subjects, do already teach these things to a greater or lesser degree. Poor courses at University and the vast majority of pre-university teaching ... don't.


    Chrisj - that's a good start, yes. But if your sink is blocked, would you rather have someone who knows plumbing or someone who knows how to learn? And there are many learning styles, too - do we offer options when teaching people how to learn? And so on. The reason politicians don't address this question is that it needs a whole set of answers, not just one.


    Lots of contributors have mentioned grade inflation at GCSE/ 'A' level and taken it as a 'given'. The term can be misleading. Some thoughts on 'grade inflation' :

  • Modularity Development of IT systems and consequent availability of instant reference in the workplace reduced the importance of testing memory and increased the importance of testing information retrieval, analysis and evaluation. Hence modular testing became the norm. Students tend to be more motivated/ less daunted by modular testing rather than post course synoptic testing. It has also been the case that the model of modular testing developed in the UK permits test re-sits, allowing grade improvement and screening out of ‘failing’ pupils.

  • Application of ‘business efficiency’ models to marking in the Thatcher years. GCE was generally assessed using essays or short paragraph answers. These were time consuming to mark and could lead to subjective marking. The introduction of computerised assessment and objective assessment (often data driven short answers) allowed quicker and therefore cheaper marking which could be more easily scrutinised. However, this permitted students with poor literacy to do better than previously in some subjects. The requirement to write essays for most subject testing in GCE carried with it the implication that those with poor writing skills performed badly.

  • Improved statistical analysis of pupils The development of national datasets of performance records which compared pupil progress at GCSE and ‘A’ level from ‘11+’, Verbal Reasoning, cognitive ability or standard assessment tests at age 11 and 14 permitted teachers to identify likely grades at GCSE and ‘A’ level of those pupils. This in turn resulted in a more targeted exam entry policy. Put bluntly, if pupils were statistically unlikely to pass they weren’t entered. More positively, it also helped teachers identify underachievers early and put pressure on them to improve before it was too late.

  • Improved teaching techniques and accountability.
    The development of (3) above also allowed teachers to more accurately monitor the success or otherwise of different teaching techniques with different sorts of pupils and also to ‘tailor’ teaching techniques to pupils with different sorts of learning styles. This was because the results gained from various teaching techniques could be measured against a national statistical ‘norm’. Despite the negative hype in the press, teaching is much more professional and skilled than it was in the days of teaching GCE.

  • Widening of the curriculum/ lowering of subject curriculum time. This is also a result of the ‘Thatcher revolution’. The demand from business for pupils with new skills in IT, languages and technology meant extending the curriculum. In the 1950s 8 GCEs were considered perfectly adequate, even in the most prestigious grammar schools. Numbers of GCSE subjects taught increased to 10 as the norm and 12 in some schools. Although the teaching week increased a little, the net result was less time for each subject. This hit Maths, which is a subject taught incrementally and where there needs to be time for a concept to embed before a new one is introduced. (This was a particular problem after the introduction of ‘Curriculum 2000’ at ‘A’ level). Science was particularly hard hit, with a change from choosing Science subjects to a requirement to study Physics, Chemistry and Biology with some Geology (or often combined Science) for GCSE. In many schools the time for studying a Science subject was consequently less than 2/3 what it had been. Less study time meant less depth or breadth of study, which had knock-on effects to ‘A’ level and then to higher education.

  • The net result of all this is that the term “grade inflation” can be misleading. Yes, if an employer wants an entrant with a good memory and an ability to write fluently and well, he or she is probably better employing someone with a good grade at GCE ‘O’ level gained in the 1950s. However, that entrant was likely to be less practiced in the skills of evaluation and analysis, less well taught (except possibly in English grammar), not taught at all in IT and have studied a narrower curriculum. In Science and Technology they will have studied for more hours per subject but their curriculum will have emphasised observation and measurement more and analysis and evaluation less and will be extremely out of date, given the rapidity of change in these subject areas. And the problem with HE? Its teaching techniques have not caught up with the changes in schools, in England and Wales the degree is not long enough in comparison to other countries and we have a government that is doctrinally welded to the idea of private rather than public provision in all areas of life.


    @ 106:

    3. Plumbers. For just about everything else in between.

    A humble affirmation - but very, very true. Rucker made this point in "Freeware": no matter how wacky and far out technology and lifestyles got, there will always be plumbers as long as there is a recognizable human society.

    But maybe I'm prejudiced; I grew up without indoor plumbing. Trust me, after having to trudge to the outhouse in thirty degree weather (zero degrees for you Socialist Euro types who don't do manly units), after having to hand-pump water and then warm it up to a bearable temperature on a stove that burned wood cut by those same hands (using only hand-powered tools) just to get a decent bath, you get the idea that indoor plumbing is one of the great inventions of civilization that separates us from the animals.


    Welcome to the music business. Except writers don't have so many chances to make money from touring.


    @ 108:

    SARA HOROWITZ: Yes, according to the General Accounting Office, a third of the work force(is un/der-employed). And, really, what happens matters is, what is happening to the human beings who are doing these jobs, and how do we make it that they have a real and profound safety net? In an older thread Charlie asked what the next bubble was. The Education Bubble is one, the Employment Bubble is tied into that, they feed each other. Sad to say, as the world becomes middle class, more and more people become redundant, not needed to keep the world running.

    Yet another way those visionaries from the 50's on back got it wrong. Sheckley has an amusing bit about a hardened space pioneer growing gaunt from having to work three and even four days a week, sometimes for as long as five hours. More generally, there seemed to be an assumption back then that as society grew more affluent citizens would naturally work fewer hours while being far better off materially. The worst case scenario was stuff like Vonnegut's Player Piano.

    But the truth of the matter is that this would not be the result of some sort of natural, gradualist evolution; it would be instead one of those all-out cultural revolutions that totally reshapes society. And this is because capitalism as it is now conceived and executed is completely incompatible with the notion that people can work fewer hours while at the same time having the expectation of becoming more affluent. That's the very antithesis of Capitalism and against its most fundamental tenets.

    What's more in line with the Glorious Vision is that as people become superfluous they are . . . dealt with[1]. The end result is a world where there are no poor because the rich did away with them.

    Think on that as a 21st century game changer.

    [1]Not killed out of hand except in the most dystopic visions of the future of course. What I would expect to see in the West if this sort of thing plays out is that the poor are through a variety of policies circumscribed from reproducing. Some sort of legal mechanism that puts a check on the number of kids a couple could have on the grounds of doing right by the chidrun and raising them properly[2]. This sort of thing seems to be playing out already in the United States where the well-to-do are actually having more kids per spousal unit than their counterparts in shiftless masses. Kids are expensive . . . especially girls :-)

    [2]My daughter once jokingly (I hope) remarked that the 'rents not getting her the latest phone would be, like, child abuse. In tomorrow's world that might not be too far from the truth, at least as conceived in social policies that are justified as being "for the children".


    An interesting analysis. The results of two Scottish studies on literacy and numeracy (from 1996 and 2009) both appear to suggest that younger people have greater literacy and numeracy than older generations - albeit the 2009 study showed a dramatic fall-off for the current lot of 16-25 year olds (making my cohort of 25-34 year olds the most literate and numerate there have ever been.)



    Perhaps what appears to be grade inflation is in part simply better teaching. Or perhaps making A-levels and GCSEs easier has the beneficial side effect of improving the educational level of those who would have struggled with more challenging qualifications. Though it does have the unfortunate effect of making it hard to identify the really exceptional students when you're handing an A grade to a quarter of your pupils


    For me, although the academic side of university education was very important, I also felt that the social aspects were very nearly as useful. Skills like learning to live away from home and parents (although with some pastoral support from the university), and meeting other students from very different backgrounds and thereby gaining a fresh perspective on a whole range of subjects, have been incredibly valuable throughout my life.

    When I went to university in 1984, only one girl in our Upper Sixth form class was going to college locally: everyone else was going to college / university some considerable distance away and coming home at weekends was a very occasional event at the university I went to. Now that funding issues have caused more students to favour studying at their local university so they can live at home and cut their costs, this whole side of university education has drastically diminished, with university college being just like an extension of school, sticking with the same group of friends in many cases. I think this is a great shame and am glad I got the opportunity to go to university before the current model became so prevalent.

    Chrisj - that's a good start, yes. But if your sink is blocked, would you rather have someone who knows plumbing or someone who knows how to learn?

    Preferably both, in case there's something unusual about my plumbing. More seriously, preferably both, because while I'm interacting with the plumber as a plumber, I'll also be interacting (less directly) with the same individual as a voter who, indirectly, gets a say in government policy. I'm very keen on evidence-based policy, and wish that it was more widespread and - perhaps more to the point - generally considered to be more appealing than the rhetoric-and-ignorance-based policy that is practically universal at present.

    And there are many learning styles, too - do we offer options when teaching people how to learn?

    Necessarily we do; if we don't offer teaching styles that match the pupils' learning styles, then they're not going to learn (or at least not as well).

    And so on. The reason politicians don't address this question is that it needs a whole set of answers, not just one.

    Yes and no. It is very complex (and my answers here, as in the comment you replied to, are necessarily incomplete and abbreviated), and that is one reason why politicians don't address it much. But sadly our current education system's flaws are regarded (not always consciously) as personally/politically beneficial by many politicians. After all, if you're a rhetoric-and-ignorance politician, you generally don't want to set up a system that will defacto render you unemployable, but it's very hard for evidence-based politics to get a grip when rhetoric-and-ignorance is the mode pushed by... well, practically everyone (especially the media, but party organisations and pressure groups too). You also, of course, get the marvellous argument that changing our schools would be social engineering - which is true as far as it goes. Arranging for people to have any kind of education is always social engineering, which is to say that doing nothing is social engineering too; it's just social engineering intended to maintain the status quo (or something like it).


    slightly of topic , but when Thatcher dies , do we all get to sing 'ding dong the wicked witch is dead'?



    Then I'm going to go get myself arrested for gross indecency (see also: graves, pissing on).


    Your point about social engineering is the key one, I think. A fully-realized education policy is an articulation of the kind of society it's intended to support. That's necessarily complex(*) and dangerous politically because having too clear an agenda makes it hard to find common ground with potential allies.

    (I also wonder if education policy tends to conservativism because voters all have an opinion that's based on their own experience and, except for a minority of teachers and students, that opinion is always out of date. But that's a bit of a tangent.)

    (*) As long as you have to have a policy, that is. Anarchists have other ideas... but we'd have to ditch capitalism first, and that's hard.


    scentofviolets @142: Think on that as a 21st century game changer.

    Essentially, yes, simply through Market Forces alone, world population will be below two billion by 2100.


    Ah, well .... upon the underclass education Bubble across more than one Continent ?

    Things move on, and I was, a few days ago , on the receiving end of a fairly obvious Internet based scam wherein a Sub Continent .. probably based in Mumbai by the accent of the Operator- phoned me by old fashioned voice phone to announce that THEY worked for ALL of the U'ks I.S.Providers * and that They were concerned that My Broadband connection seemed to be running slow ....Bla Bla Bla .. in essence they had bought my phone number and name and were trying to Sell Me Stuff by way of gaining my financial info.

    This Intelligence was probably provided by a low life who was undergoing a training course as financed be a U.K. power company that I had dumped and moved on from, but which was then supporting a Course in the 5th form at a Local Comprehensive School.. Ah well, it makes a change from the Born again Christian, Local Businssman Supported Evolution Deniers as in the - much reported on North East of England T.V.- Event in which a Science Teacher had Taught the Required course in Biological Science but had then Slapped down a Large Copy of the Christian-ish Bible and Declared That ".. THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE !" and pro-ceeded thereafter to Affirm his belief.

    Oh, well, I expect that the Used Car Dealer ..the Highly Successfully and RICH used car dealer ... who was his sponsor was Proud of him but it did cause quite a stir hereabouts at the time.

    But I digress.That power co 'Representative ' had several times phoned me in the early Hours of the Morning to Sell The virtues of his company and he had, on gentle questioning had admitted to ...suprise Surprise! .. to trying to get ahead of his fellow 'Salesme ..persons ' by using his own personal phone ahead of the time at which his training center/call-center did Officially Open... No teenager gets up at that hour of the morning without a stunningly good Money based reason. Of course my early morning -5.30am ..persecutor had downloaded my info from his training center/schools data base and was thereby in breach of the U.Ks Data Protection act and had thus committed a Criminal Offense, but .. Hey, Guess what ? .. his Trainers on his Training Course hadn't told him of this ..can't think why not.

    The thing is that the Kids on the Local ' CALL CENTER Course ' were indirectly providing money to that school via the sponsors and were eminently deniable if the Scam went wrong ... and they had a Large Room full of gear courtesy of that PoW-er Co, plus trainers geared to the joys of the Call Center and the Pain of not having a Job. And that is one level below Higher Education in the U.K.

    One stage up from that would require an Anecdote from Higher Education ...Consider The HEAD of Business School at a large former Polytechnic in the North East of England who stood before a School Meeting in the dying years of the last century and said that he had Examined the Schools Financial Situation and had discovered that he couldn't make the Books Balance ..this School was a Cash Cow for that Northern England Former Polytechnic,former Technical college that had had a pretty good Rep once upon a time but had been bled white by the need to support a Admin structure and less profitable but more Worthy Schools .. who did DESPISE Business School with all of their academic /Literary Etc Might.

    Of course the U.Ks Government had failed to provide the funds necessary to support the rapid and much publicized expansion of Higher Education in the '90s.

    So, all things being equal the Head of School declared that he had no other choice but to cut staff student hours by Half and this as of the following Monday. He received only three dissenting Voices on behalf of the poor Bloody students and one of them was a Mere senior technician rather than an academic. The academics mostly did mutter ..ah well Bums on Seats ... Wot can Ya Do?

    Oh, and the vague hope that the U.Ks University's weren't going to turn toward the Dark-side of the U.S of Americas SYSTEM ? Sorry folks but that started to happen in the Thatcher /Rea -gun regime during the '80s and is now nearing completion..Mrs T loved the American Way as it followed on from her High Tory Mentors love of the Rich American Wives that the Tory Panjandrum's did acquire back in an Earlier Edwardian Age .. Oh, oops, I've slipped into Tolkien ism -can't think why.

    There is a nasty piece of doggerel verse that proclaims the joy of leaving the under/working /non working class ..

    " The Working Class Can Kiss My Arse for I am Rul ling Class at Last ! "

    Maybe that can be rephrased as Political Class at LAST ?


    Charlie - I'll pay your fine (might as well, I'll paying mine too).

    Nice that on Thatcher's birthday the whole world was concerned about the fate of some miners, albeit Chilean ones.

    re:grade inflation. Me and a mate spent some time yesterday looking up past O-level papers in our strongest subjects to see if they got easier. Based on the papers I found, mathematics seems to have declined in difficulty and in scope. A 1957 paper had essay sections on the history of mathematics, for example. Even discounting things that aren't really taught much these days, such as classic geometry, the earlier maths papers were -much- harder than modern ones.

    We found a similar story with chemistry, not my best area, I found that while chemistry papers have got easier they're still too hard for me.

    Anecdotally, I hear that even very good maths departments (e.g. Warwick) are finding their students need what used to be considered "remedial" classes before they can even begin their real degree.


    But do you have the Patience to Wait in the Queue Charlie? I am a Generation ahead of you and thus take precedence ... and then there is a Generation ahead of me.You could be queuing for a very Long time.


    Age before beauty.

    (NOTE for non-Brits: Thatcher's public image outside the UK is, shall we say it, much more positive than within, where nearly two thirds of us voted against her at the time. She's widely hated: not for corruption, but for sheer vindictive destructiveness. And while I'll be the first to admit that there were many worse bastards on the political scene at the time -- one need look no further than her close personal friend Augusto Pinochet -- she was our bastard. Hence: graves, pissing upon, long queues for.)


    Personally I am just a little saddened that Thatcher will probably die before I have the chance to use her for a pignata. Either that or as a nice target for my archery, though I would not like having to clean her gore off my nice shiny arrows.


    I remember someone suggesting that instead of a state funeral for Thatcher we should just chuck a bottle of gin down a deep mine and watch her jump after it.

    More seriously, I don't think she has long - her mind's almost completely gone now. Even for her I feel some sadness when I hear accounts that she occasionally forgets her husband has died. Even for her.


    Joy, all that makes sense. At least some of the weaknesses I recall from my schooldays would have been averted. I've no clear recollection, for instance, of being taught anything about writing essays. Which maybe has something to do with failing history. (An O-level syllabus focused on 18th Century British politics didn't help, but that's personal taste.) And maybe the combination of modularity, continuous assessment, and statistical feedback would have put me in a different area. My Maths A-level was a disaster that didn't reflect my O-level results.


    We should recall that Thatcher was one of the few politicians with a scientific education.

    Not a good advert for technocracy...


    Even discounting things that aren't really taught much these days, such as classic geometry, the earlier maths papers were -much- harder than modern ones...

    This was right around the time, as I recall, when Kingsley Amis was saying "more will mean worse" when talking about expansion of the British post-secondary system, which at the time he was part of (English lecturer at Swansea).

    Occasionally, reactionaries may get it right.


    Other politicians with science backgrounds are available - Hilary Benn, for example.

    Thatcher's contribution to science was the development of icecream with ... I dunno, some way of bubbling nitrogen through it. She later continued her work in the area of reducing children's milk intake.


    Can't help smiling about the fact her 85th birthday was bumped off the front page (so to speak) by a good news story about miners


    Interesting that Reagan and Thatcher the, two conservative icons, should both end their lives suffering dementia. Might their values have been a consequence of mental deterioration already under way?

    I remember reading of a study done with nuns. They had been required when they entered the novitiate to write a life history explaining why the were choosing to become nuns. This provided a writing sample to examine in the light of their late life mental status. The ones who developed Alzheimer's were found to have produced markedly less complex written expression in their youth.


    A university degree has historical symbolized a signal to employers that said recipient is competent enough to show up to scheduled places at a scheduled time somewhat using their brain enough to form structured ideas, regurgitate accepted jingoisms, or is rich enough to fake it. The recipient should also crave the approval of their superiors(grades), while vigorously competing with their cohort. All things desirable to a company seeking cogs in the industrial wheel. But now too many cogs have the paper, and there aren't enough spokes to go around.

    At 20,000(US Dollars) a year the value of a undergraduate degree is quite dubious to the individual. Except without one chances of getting a decent job are even worse then with them, so what to do? In most cases the apprenticeship model worked well for centuries and still works now. As new technologies send industries in and out in a matter of years current skills may become irrelevant by the time they can be used. What is more important is the ability to learn and adapt. People learn the best when they see, read, and do the skill involved, this is what apprenticeships offer. This model could work well when one may have to switch fields several times during their life.

    However, for those who think a general liberal arts degree is worthless, they may have a case for the individual, but for society's benefit I beg to differ. I"m not talking about comparative lit wanking, or small group dance studies( although if thats your trip, fine) but a general knowledge of math, science, economics, english, and history. I read a study that surveyed reporters of scientific topics for major american news outlets which found that 50% of respondents believed that dinosaurs and people existed at the same time. Now college may not prepare you for a job but hopefully it can prepare people to have enough backround knowledge to detect blatant lies. This may be the most important skill we want citizens of a democracy to have. If not, we will continue to get masses cheering a former republican presidential nominee who proclaimed, "I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles. We will get candidates who will magically lower our taxes while providing increases services. We will get people insisting that a 250 year old document created in a time of horse and carriages can never be changed nor improved. How can people judge whether or not policy is sound when they have no economic education to draw from?

    Future shock is rolling along and will probably only increase. Deductive thinking, problem solving, being able to read articles and communicate our own ideas are skills that have always been important and will continue to be more important in the future. College may not prepare people for work, but it should prepare people how to learn and think, and change. We may not need 50% of the population to be engineers but a well running democracy must have over 50% of its constituent who are able to form a rationale thought. For the money college ma;y not be the answer, but until we come up with a better answer its the best we got.

    163: 157 and 159 - Yes, it is rather a comment on politicians that one of the few notables with a science degree used that degree to try and increase the amount of (effectively free) air in a given volume of ice-cream (In the UK, ice-cream is sold by volume, not mass, in shops).

    ChrisJ said "to identify and, where possible, defeat their own internal biases"

    So I'd like to ask whether anyone can list a few things that Thatcher did that they agreed with. She was in power for quite a while and it seems very unlikely that everything she did was somehow 'evil'.

    165: 162 para 3 - What you are referring to as "liberal arts", I'd have said was more of a "general science" degree.

    Well, there was the Falklands War, but apart from that;

    What did Maggie T ever do for us? NOTHING!! ;-)


    What's wrong with education? Well, This damning article says everything. The persecution and harrassment of the more able, and the political hounding of any dissenting views, and the deliberate suppression of any signs of ability or talent.


    What do you mean by was - some of us are still using Token Ring.

    Chris. (When your production system/installed base is big enough, changing things can be a very slow process.)


    I believe the offence is actually "Committing a nusiance" rather than any form of indecency.

    Then again, it will probably be such a popular event that they may need to sell tickets and organise orderly queueing.


    @ Andy wood 168....

    Ok so list something Maggie did that was good. Well some people would say that the right to buy a council house was good. I however would say that its a double edged sword. One that I am sure Maggie was well aware of when the law got changed.

    Yes it is great that people who rented a council house were able to buy at a discounted rate, it did allow many people who could not afford home ownership that chance to have a morgage. In that respect its a good thing. Very capitalist, all good for market forces etc... Or is it?

    Now the guy who used to rent a council house is in the grip of a bank. Should his horrible nasty commie union decide to go on strike... Well he would then be in big trouble. Councils tended to be a bit more understanding about such things, allowing the striker to go into arrears that he would then pay back over the coming months. Banks? Erm no. So Mr Union member has a stark choice when a strike vote comes in. Vote for the strike and risk losing your home, vote against the strike and lose what little rights you have gained over the years.

    The third point it this. The number of council houses dwindled to almost nothing. Waiting lists became rediculously long and people like myself were forced to buy whether we wanted to or not. And not at the discounted rate, I had to pay full market value for a one bedroom flat that almost crippled me for 5 years. I had to go through many strikes too, risking losing the dump I had bought because I couldnt scab a strike. Believe me, rail workers have long memories when it comes to strike breakers.

    So the point is I suppose that even the "Good" that Thatcher did had a side effect.


    IIRC, there is one member of the Chinese politburo who isn't a scientist or engineer by training.

    He's the economics PhD.

    We have rule by lawyer and CEO; they have rule by technocrat.


    The Falklands War, as is turning out a quarter-century plus after the event, was the result of a diplomatic cock-up by Thatcher's FO, who in the first instance tried to sell the Falkland Islands to the Argentinian Junta -- then got cold feet when the natives got restless and just about ran the Foreign Secretary out of town on a rail. The application of brakes to the plan, pending a rethink, convinced the junta that the Perfidious British were double-crossing them, hence the invasion.

    So no, the Falklands War does not redound to Thatcher's credit. (Although, cabinet government being what it is, the blame for 2500-odd deaths is not entirely hers.)


    In the spirit of voting so the wrong lizard doesn't get in, just say to yourself "Prime Minister Michael Foot" and maybe your memories of Maggie will not be so sour.

    She got elected and re-elected so many times because Labour shit the bed so throughly in the 70s it took a generation to get the taste of their blundering indoctrinaire incompetence out of the voting population's mouth. Arthur Scargill and General Galtieri helped along the way of course.


    It was well-understood at the time of the Falklands mess that the Foreign Office had screwed up badly hence the resignations of senior pols and the lack of knighthoods being handed out among the permanent secretaries for a generation afterwards. A major trigger for the war was the plan to retire the only Royal Navy asset stationed in the area, the Antarctic survey vessel Endurance. Galtieri's murderous dictatorship was in trouble and they needed a Short Victorious War to distract the peasants and rally national support and assuming the British were half-hearted about the Falklands they went for it.

    There are discussions going on today between the UK government and the Argentinians about the future of the Falklands; they are about as productive as the peace talks between the North and South Koreans. Occasionally one side or the other will use the current situation as a political football (oil exploration, visits to military graves) but it's very much under the radar for most folks.


    Perhaps what appears to be grade inflation is in part simply better teaching.

    How dare you deny that society is doomed to inevitable decline, which can only be temporarily staved off by the harsh but fair rule of the natural elite. /snark

    Seriously, we expect at least some labour productivity growth in literally every field of economic activity. It would be truly incredible if we found a sector that didn't experience any improvement over time.

    In the UK, also, you have to remember that the grading system was norm referenced up to 1985 and therefore, pre-85 grades contain no information about students' absolute performance, only their performance relative to the rest of their class.


    Hi Iain, Well the idea was to list something where you genuinely thought she did the right thing, but thanks for trying!

    I guess you could also say it was "good" that she (and the rest of the [spits] tories) were in so long and pissed off the electorate so much that they were unelectable for years afterwards, except of course that opened the door to Bliar and Clown who just might have done the same for (nu-)Labour ...

    It seems odd how Thatcher (the person and her government) is able to divide opinion so completely that on the one side there are calls for her to have a state funeral, and on the other there are people talking about wanting to dance on her grave!

    I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle - not everything she did was good and not everything was bad. For people at both ends of the spectrum there should be the opportunity for growth in allowing themselves the luxury of at least glimpsing the other side of the coin. Hence the question for the -phobes: Name some things she did you agree with, and of course for the -philes: Name some things she did you disagree with. I'd suggest that if you cannot name 'some' then you simply cannot have a balanced view and the discussion becomes akin to Creationists vs Evolutionists, or worse still, vi vs eMacs!

    (FWIW, put me down for Evolution and vi)


    This post might be of interest, as it covers the subject of whether or not there is a shortage of new scientists:


    " or worse still, vi vs eMacs"

    And the correct answer, at least on SunOS/Solaris, is textedit (for screen edits and "search and replace strings", like in coding) and awk (for regular processing of bulk text). ;-)

    [meanwhile, back at the point]

    Where does it place me if I think that the 3 worst things Maggie did for the UK were John Major, Tony B Liar and Greedy Gordon Brown?


    (NOTE for non-Brits: Thatcher's public image outside the UK is, shall we say it, much more positive than within, where nearly two thirds of us voted against her at the time. She's widely hated: not for corruption, but for sheer vindictive destructiveness. And while I'll be the first to admit that there were many worse bastards on the political scene at the time -- one need look no further than her close personal friend Augusto Pinochet -- she was our bastard. Hence: graves, pissing upon, long queues for.)

    That's fine - I feel exactly the same way about our local incarnations, Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

    And Pinochet had to be buried in secret because the risk of him being dug up and treated the same way he'd treated his people was judged too great.

    If you're lucky, they'll give Thatcher a state funeral. you can all line the route and throw shit at the coffin.


    My knowledge of what was done under Thatcher's reign is small, due ot the fact I was a child at the time. A couple of good things that she/ the politicians of the time did - Setting up the HAdley centre for taking AGW seriously, and gettiing developers to pay for archaeological work on the site they are developing.

    I did draw up such a list for Blair et al, and found them decidedly wanting. Yes, they put more money into the NHS, but they kept the PFI up which guaranteed wasting a lot of it. Yes they increased some benefits, making lots of people a bit better off, but thats treating the symptoms not the cause. Other times they meant well but fouled up the implementation. Let alone the wars and crazy authoritarianism.


    The mad bitch from Grantham did one really evil thing, and rejoiced in it ever after. When Min for Education and science, she gleefully killed the world's most successful space programme, in terms of outcome for money spent. It was in financial trouble anyway, but Hilda ENJOYED crushing it - as was apparent from her later pronouncements.



    She was just sick of people telling her that things weren't rocket science.


    @161 .. well , if your losing your marbles, if you have more of 'em in the bag to start with - you take longer to run out of 'em

    myslef I think the reason for her current problems is that shes had the Eldrich infestation for too long, K syndrome


    It's not easy to think of many things that the Thatcher government did that I am noticeably fond of, but I'll certainly speak in favour of mandatory recording of police interviews (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, I believe).


    The reason there's a degree arms race? A deep, profound, and widespread disrespect for the jobs one can do without a degree. There's no longer any honor in becoming an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter... though they possess mathematical and physical skills far in excess of any liberal arts major, they are nonetheless heaped with scorn. Derided as hicks, rubes, dolts.

    Until some respect is paid to tradesmen, the degree system will continue to inflate and the class division will grow.


    The US seems to have reached a similar point via a somewhat different path. We always had less government support for students and multiple methods of creating and supporting colleges.

    In the US cheap loans created via government policies have created a situation where anyone can go to college. Even if you don't graduate high school you can get a GED through programs at some community colleges, take remedial courses, then credit courses. All of it funded via low interest loans with payments deffered until after graduation. This sort of thing is just what is needed to create a bubble.

    On top of that there is a social factor in the US. If you are middle class or upper class it is expected that your children will go to college. It doesn't matter if they would make more money and have more stable employment if they became a mechanic or plumber, that's embarrassing for mom and dad. And in the US everyone wants to be middle class.

    There's also heavy promotion by civil leaders, school leaders, and politicians. Everyone thinks it is an unmitigated good to have as many kids as possible going to college regardless of what they are studying.

    Recently there have been some talks of changes. The rise of the for-profit higher education industry has attracted notice, and politicians are considering putting into place some sort of check to make sure that graduates are able to get gainful employment and pay back their loans without beggaring themselves.


    How much of the pre-Thatcher "golden age" relies on rebuilding from the wars and the lack of industrial competition from areas bombed out of productive capability by wars (Germany, Japan) or communism (Soviet Union, China)?

    We can have that golden age again, we merely have to nuke China, Germany, Brazil, India and Japan into cinders and we get a generation of good-paying "blue collar" jobs.


    I have a tinfoil hat not especially original meta-theory for a lot of the things that seem to be going wrong for the middle class:

    During the Industrial revolution, there was a strong ramp up in middle class type positions, so nations had the option of ramping up the size of the middle class [1] of fading in relative national power. As things got more sophisticated, this need continued, and it continually improved the size and wealth of the middle class.

    Somewhere around the seventies, improved automation and globalization[2] started to significantly eat into this trend. The globalization has eventual limits (albeit big ones) as the rest of the world catches up to the industrialized nations. The automation is not limited, and is in fact ramping up faster every year. It may make the foreign middle class irrelevant before they are fully employed, in fact.

    We seem to be heading towards the classic SF trope where there are a large number of people who are not economically productive, at least in our current economic model. For this model to be stable politically, these economically extraneous people need to be disempowered. Hey, look, the current Uni education system in the Anglosphere seems to be aimed at diisempowering the middle class. I am stunned.

    [1] Note that this is not necessarily proactive. "We stopped oppressing them so much," or even "the aristos lost the revolution" probably count.

    [2] Instead of hiring expensive local middle class, you can now hire cheaper foreign middle class.


    The problem isn't "credentialism," it's the general worthlessness of the left-dominated educational system.

    My wife grew up in a very poor country and never got a college degree. She started doing Java work at about 18, earning very little. Now she's 31 and very competent and very well-compensated.

    Competence > Credentials

    Of course, nationalizing your health care industry has also been a complete fucking disaster. You can try to justify it with non sequiturs like life expectancy measurements (which aren't relevant and disappear in like ethnicities anyway) but there's a crushing weight of evidence that it sucks. Why are people dying on waiting lists? Why are British men 5 times more likely to die than Americans if they get prostate cancer? Why is dental care abysmal? Why are hospitals filthy? Governments are not good at running economies, as anyone who's read their Hayek and Friedman should understand.


    "Yes, but why do we have a qualifications arms race?"

    Bluntly put, we have become physically lazy. Becoming a carpenter, plumber or any of the trades means manual labour. Too few of us want to do that, so those professions end up with better pay and the rest of us end up with a qualification arms race. More interestingly, we don't really have an innovation arms race. Too many people want the 1950s - 1980s back when the qualification gave you the right to make good money following orders. Then the "qualification arms race" hit and salaries went down as we found that Indians and Chinese were just as good at following orders as we were. In many cases, better. If you want to make good money, you have two choices. 1. Do something no one else want to do and charge market appropriate rates for it. 2. Do something new that people value and can't get anywhere else. What you can't do is sleepwalk through 3-4 years of university studying art history, then expect to make good money... and thank goodness for that!


    185: "Until some respect is paid to tradesmen, the degree system will continue to inflate and the class division will grow."

    Runaway competitive status display seems an all-too-plausible mechanism for

    a) the rise of technological civilisation and its current lamentable state, b) its likely self-destruction in the not too distant future, and therefore c) the ominous silence Out There.

    That would seem to cover Life, the Universe and (almost) everything. I take very little pleasure in this hypothesis.


    Sigh. Another Martian stumbles in from the Planet Of The Death Panels ...

    TallDave: kindly bear in mind that I'm alive now thanks to our wonderful socialist healthcare system. And don't let the doorknob hit you on the ass on your way out.

    (PS: You know Hayek was in favour of collective healthcare? Strange but true.)


    You can try to justify it with non sequiturs like life expectancy measurements

    ... and ...

    Why are British men 5 times more likely to die than Americans if they get prostate cancer

    I so love it when people don't realise their argument is attempting to have its cake and eat it too.



    Why do people die on our NHS wating lists? Well they dont, or they dont very often that I have heard of. The real question you should ask is how many people die in the USA because they have no health insurance, or worse their health insurer just refuses to pay for their treatment?

    I am not saying our system is perfect, because its not, but its far from being a disaster. It does work, even if there is a chronic lack of investment from the government (see the global economic crisis). The Hospitals are NOT filthy that I have seen, though they are a bit old now (see lack of investment) but they do seem to manage fairly well even with the lack of staff (see lack of investment again).

    Now, its fair to say that if you have loads of cash in America you can get great health care. Noone is denying that. If you are skint or have no isurance however you are FUCKED. Here, it matters not if you are the richest man alive or the poorest bum, you WILL recieve treatment. It is the cornerstone of our society, its been working since its inception, perhaps not perfectly but its never let me down.

    And before you say "Oh but American hospitals.... " and follow up with some argument about superior health care, the point is its only superior IF YOU CAN PAY FOR IT. And "research" is all well and good but it again only helps if you have the money to pay for the experimental drug or treatment. All of which we in the UK get free. Well not free, because we all pay for it. Everyone. We pay through our national insurance. There is no getting out of it. And it does work.


    Bluntly put, we have become physically lazy.

    I don't buy this. I think it's because people don't respect the knowledge and skill required to work in the trades. It's seen as a career for those who can't manage a "better" job.

    When I was in school (in Canada ), trades and work involving physical labor were denigrated and students were strongly discouraged from those careers. To become a mechanic, plumber or similar was considered to be a failure and what the dumb kids did. I believe it is still the case.

    A friend of mine went to a technical high school that focused on that career path. It was a good school in general; he went on to do a PhD in Physics. It's since been shutdown due to lack of attendance, I believe due to parents not wanting their kids to look stupid.


    TallDave: You know we haven't had a left-wing government since 1979, right? (If you count Callaghan as left-wing, that is. Many wouldn't.)

    It's wrong to claim any major feature of British society today is left-dominated or due to our socialist governments, it's on a par with saying 1976 West Germany was essentially a nazi society. (Woot! first Godwin in this thread?)

    In 1979 we pretty much retained the "elitist" university system - not many went and those that did had to pass harder examinations. It wasn't the left-wing but the free-market loonies who changed the system, transforming institutions into retail outlets.

    Not sure what the NHS has to do with this debate, or what your point is. Assuming it to be "You retards should do everything the US way", my short reply would be "Have a word with yourself, mate".

    In the spirit of a free-market, if you want a more detailed and researched answer, put it out to tender. I'm not going to do your research for you for free.

    (sorry to get shirty with one of your guests, Mr Stross. But really, what an awful chap)


    I don't buy the physically lazy bit either. Jobs have come under increased pressure for specialist knowledge and qualifications since long before the destruction of British industry.
    What I might agree is that there is a higher percentage of apparent laziness in the current generation of school leavers. This is only to be expected, since with the destruction and modernisation of industry, nobody knows anyone who still does old fashioned work with their hands, and the older cultures which valued such things have weakened a great deal in the face of triumphant commercialism, television shows and the triumph of finance cough cough.

    This does not amount to a cause for a lack of plumbers etc. Rather, one of the original source sof plumbers, electricians etc were time served apprentices from said industry. 30 years ago in Glasgow the firms would take on several thousand 16/17 year olds a year, who would be trained in useful stuff and as importantly, forced to conform to more adult mores and values, rather than hanging about on street corners moaning about how everyone hates them, or beating up their friends.
    (Obviously there were flaws in the system but definitely some good points)

    Fast forwards to 3 or 4 years ago, when I heard on the radio about the lack of apprenticeships for boys who wanted to learn how to do plumbing and electricians work. Thats right, thanks to the lack of proper vocational training, many teenagers were left for a life of unemployment or pointless training on a not very relevant college course.


    TallDave said: Why are British men 5 times more likely to die than Americans if they get prostate cancer?

    OK, I'll take this one if I may. A Lancet Oncology global study in 2008 found that 91.9 per cent of Americans with the disease were still alive after five years compared to just 51.1 per cent in the UK.

    On the face of it, these figures are indeed valid. They come from the CONCORD study, which we helped fund, and compared 5-year survival rates between many different countries.

    But just comparing the US and the UK, and saying that the bigger number is ‘better’, misses a deeper truth.

    The US uses the PSA blood test far more widely than we do in the UK – despite questions over how effective it is at spotting cancers that would actually kill, as opposed to those that cause no symptoms.

    As a result, the USA has one of the highest recorded rates of prostate cancer in the world.

    So although it’s undoubtedly ‘better’ at spotting prostate cancers, it’s also fair to say that some of these Americans will never die from their disease.

    This ‘over diagnosis’ inflates the survival statistics, at the expense of ‘over treating’ men – which is expensive and can cause long-term side effects (which can need further treatment). Indeed, the (extra-)early detection afforded the men in the US for the usually slow maturing prostate cancer skews the results further still because many (most?) wouldn't have died within 5 years had the cancer not been detected, or if they decided not to treat it at all (an unlikely event when that's how you get paid!).

    So you might just as well argue that the ‘91 per cent’ survival figure could be due to a system that over diagnoses and over treats prostate cancer, as opposed to saying our 51 per cent stat is due to poor healthcare in the UK. Bigger is not always better.

    Finally, if you look at UK survival rates for early stage prostate cancer, a different picture emerges – men in the UK have a 98.6 per cent five-year survival rate. Clearly, whatever controversies surround the diagnosis of the disease, the NHS is doing a pretty good job of managing it when it’s detected early.


    I'm not sure how relevant it is to the thread, but I feel an important, and neglected part of the drive (by students or potential students) to get into university is little or nothing to do with the degree, and everything to do with the atmosphere. I know a few people who've done second degrees, or postgrad education, simply to get out of the toxic job market and back into civilisation, as it were. There are lots of students who are students for the sake of being students, and that says a lot about society outside of the higher education system.

    As a 23 year old who looks at her student friends with no small amount of grotesque envy (they all seem to be having a lot of fun, why am I, as a non-student, excluded? Blah blah bitterness blah) I can certainly empathise with the desire to simply 'be a student' regardless of any vocational benefit, and debt be damned. When we're looking at 'credentialism' and bubbles bursting and all of that, I feel it's also important to look at perhaps just why the average person wants to be a student instead of learning a trade.


    @ 176:

    I guess you could also say it was "good" that she (and the rest of the [spits] tories) were in so long and pissed off the electorate so much that they were unelectable for years afterwards, except of course that opened the door to Bliar and Clown who just might have done the same for (nu-)Labour ...

    Well actually . . . one of the problems with social sciences like economics (though by no means the largest one) is that it's so hard to run a classical physics-style experiment that is capable of proving a hypothesis to be false. The usual observation is that running these types of experiments on large groups of people are not only unfeasible, but unethical and inhumane. Occasionally though, some genuine testing does occur when someone with both the lack of scruples and the stones to push their pet theories is elected to a position invested with enough power to experiment on whole populations. For example, Bush the Lesser over here was able to, er, test certain economic theories. And while the fact that they didn't work is lamented by some, what's really nice is that the experiment itself was pretty definitive. It's very hard for most people to say with a straight face that certain confounding variables weren't controlled for and so this experiment "didn't really prove anything".

    Well, that happened with Thatcher, only in this case the economic theory was Monetarism (This was the Monetarist doctrine espoused by Friedman back in the day before the term was so debased that it meant whatever who used it wanted it to mean.) And back in the day - can't speak to any revisionism later on - her high-handed experimentation with the theory led just about everyone to conclude that it was nonsense.

    So be grateful for those right-wing politicians who drink their own kool-aid and are actually dumb enough to force a wholesale implementation of certain policies. At that point, the canonical man in the street can then decide for himself whether or not the theory pans out.


    History of American College attendance: The GI Bill after WWII was obviously a big factor, and largely a positive one -- that came at the time when we needed more highly-skilled people in a lot of areas of employment.

    Another factor, I think, and not so good, was the strong benefit in going to college during the Vietnam war -- student deferments were one way to at least put things off (perhaps the horse would learn to sing! and in fact it did for me, I got a high draft lottery number the one year I was at risk and then things wound down).

    I don't have figures; my impression, though, is that if you examine the college degrees of business executives, judges & lawyers, and politicians, you'll find a LOT of liberal arts degrees of one sort or another. There ARE high-status jobs you can get with those degrees! (Most of them also have various graduate degrees, of course.)

    In the 1960s and 1970s there were a lot of programmers without any degree. Often the best ones. I might well be employed exactly the same today if I hadn't bothered going to college (but I list professional experience on my resume going back to when I was 15, so my resume wouldn't actually be any longer). (I was a math major, and was considering going to CS grad school, but was tired of school and liked having money by the time I graduated.) Nobody has asked to see my college transcript in relation to a programming job in 25 or so years (I did have to get one for a Community College I taught some courses at).

    Inflation in American college prices has been absurd. The full cost for 4 years at the school I attended (including tuition, room, and board, but not text books, transportation, or room and board for the summers) at the time (1972-77; I actually attended only 4 years, a bit of time off to work in the middle) was $16,000. Four years at the same place today (which is roughly the same size and has roughly the same reputation) costs $208,000. (Generic cost-of-living adjustment says the $16,000 then is equivalent to $57,000 now, so the inflation-adjusted price increase is well over 3x. This is not at all unusual in the current education market.)


    I bet that somewhere in the bowels of Bupa's marketing department, SOMEONE is weeping over how little free advertisement Bupa (and other british medical insurance operators for that matter) have gotten out of American attempts to portray the NHS as worse than the starvation of the ukraine and the holocaust combined.

    And yes Talldave, what you're saying is even funnier given that much of criticism of the NHS (especially when it comes to $EXPERIMENTALCANCERTREATMENT) is that it doesn't provide $EXPERIMENTAL_TREATMENT for free to some patients, and therefore requires people who want those treatments to pay through the nose for them via the sort of private medical market americans have in place of an NHS.

    Of course "clearly the answer to the problem is the problem itself!" is a good general attitude - write a skiffy story about the waffen SS defending us from nazi space bats and send it to Baen and you'll probably be able to get it published.


    Hey scentofviolets ... ... led just about everyone to conclude that it was nonsense.

    And yet a quick google can find numerous people who conclude the exact opposite. Of course that's not to say there aren't plenty espousing the same views, but certainly not even nearly everyone concludes that the Thatcher years were nonsense.


    Now part two, the mechanisms.

    In summary, the economic story is:

    (1) The low cost of global communication has three effects: it increases the possible span of control within organisations and production chains; it increases the span of reputations, creating a "superstar" effect where income is increasingly concentrated (Charlie has written about this as it applies to authors); and it brings other costs into the foreground, including search costs (these other costs are minimised by "agglomeration").

    (2) The combination of low communication costs, globalization, and large populations in developing countries allow production to be split up into separate tasks that can be distributed around the world; causing relatively "low skill" production work (low skill from an OECD economist's point of view) to be sent to these populous developing countries.

    The results are (1) in developing countries, and to a lesser extent in advanced countries, whole cities start to specialise in one industry (routine stuff like call centres, legal search, making the elastic for underpants or head assemblies for hard disks on the one side, very non-routine stuff like medical biotech, advanced machinery on the other); (2) advanced countries generally retain only the high-value design, marketing, legal, and finance functions (plus sufficient support e.g. in IT, HR, etc). (Germany is not really an exception; its exports are very advanced machinery, not commodities).

    (Google: Sherwin Rosen, Peter Diamond, Paul Krugman, David Autor, Eric Maskin and Michael Kremer.)

    So in advanced countries employment moves to two poles: services which require personal presence (generally poorly paid, although there are "superstars") and highly skilled creative work centred around marketing. The "middle-skill" administrative and co-ordinating jobs and the beginner technical jobs have been replaced by Enterprise Management Systems and outsourcing.


    Policymakers are only dimly aware of what's going on. All they know is that the "good" jobs out there seem to require more and more in the way of qualifications, so that's what they set out to provide. The replacement of union protection by individual litigation in case of malfeasance by employers, the dismantling of the apprentice system, and the consequent increase in job mobility has meant that even "low skill" jobs now require considerable literacy. A ditch digger has to have "safety around machines" certification, "confined space entry" certification, etc, etc.

    In a different culture, e.g. Japan's, the same forces are creating a workforce even more polarised into those with jobs for life, and those who will always be casual.

    Note that trying to turn back globalization most likely won't help. Witness FoxConn's recent threat to replace its 700,000 joint-venture employees in mainland China with an automated factory in Taiwan. Likewise, "low-skill" services (call centres, "enterprise" programming, legal search, bookkeeping) are on the point of being automatable. Automation is about to eat into other jobs too: see the NY Times's "Smarter than You Think" series for some of the things under way.

    The final point here is my first one: job content knowledge now depreciates much faster than before, re-education is going to be a permanent state for people who are able to keep up with the pace of change. So far, policymakers have been slow to reduce the cost of career retraining; possibly that is deliberate.

    The advice for young people at present has to be: (1) get into marketing, finance, or senior corporate administration; (2) focus on meeting as many people as possible - it'll be who you know, much more than what you know, that decides how easily you can get a job in future. If you go into a technical field, accept being obsolete by 40.


    I perhaps should point out that in contrast to many explanations offered here, my explication (comments 98 and 204) don't rely on self-evidently nonsensical "personal/cultural preference" or "it's teh socialsim!!ONE!" arguments.

    Just plain technological change, costs and benefits, incentives, historical accident: everybody acting in their own best interest as they understand matters. That's all you need.


    Greg: I hear you. And I can't (dammit) pick huge holes in your thesis.

    But I am left asking, pace Vladimir McBeardy, "what is to be done?"


    @ 203:

    Well, yeah, and there are still people here in the U.S. blaming the housing bubble and financial collapse on those wascally minorities who took out subprime loans that they had no business taking. Iow, yes, there will always be people who will refuse to say - publicly at least - that they were wrong. The usual tack of course is to say that what was tried wasn't really Communism/Free-market Capitalism/etc. You know, the "Bush wasn't really a conservative" types. Here's a typical bit on the history of Monetarism:

    Despite much strenuous opposition, "Monetarist experiments" were conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s in several Western countries - notoriously, the US and the UK. In 1979, soon after the ascendancy of Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve in the United States and Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in Great Britain, interest rate targets were dropped in favor of money supply targets and "disinflation" was begun. The critics of Friedman's policy turned out to be correct: there was a long, painful recession with double-digit unemployment - by far the worse recession since the 1930s - and inflation seemed to survive. In the United States, the Federal Reserve "declared victory" in 1982, when inflation was still running at 4%, and abandoned the disinflation policy. By 1984, it abandoned money supply targets altogether. In Britain, the cost of the disinflation was even greater: output had shrunk in two years by 7.5 and a fifth of manufacturing output disappeared; unemployment soared to 10% while, surprisingly, inflation actually climbed from 10% to 22%. Faced with this result, Margaret Thatcher abandoned the disinflation attempt and, eventually, monetary targets, and laid the blame for the disasters of 1980-1 on what she publicly denounced as a misguided economic doctrine.

    If even Maggie is saying this, as well as most of the world's respectable (i.e., non-Freshwater) economists, you've got to figure that they're almost certainly right. Otoh, going back to what I noted above:

    Many Monetarists explained the dismal results of the "Monetarist experiment" by accusing the Central Banks as not having been able to effectively control the money supply, in spite of their explicit targets -- "lack of nerve" on the part of Central Bankers was commonly cited. Keynesians, of course, had their own explanation for these results. The Keynesian argument was particularly lifted after Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and massive deficit-financed expansions in government spending in the early 1980s had a highly stimulative effect on the U.S. economy - just as textbook Keynesianism would predict.

    When the defenders of the Faith are backed up to "Communism can never fail, it can only be failed" type of pronouncements, you've got to figure that this is the best you're going to get in terms of a concession.

    In any event, back to the larger point: it's not often that economic doctrines can be cleanly tested. And when they are, and when a more or less definitive thumbs-up or thumbs-down can be given the people who put their energies and reputations on the line can at least be acknowledged as having the courage of their convictions. Especially laudable is when an important idea is either confirmed or found wanting, and in the latter case, having the instigator admit that they were wrong.

    So there, I've said something nice about Margaret Thatcher :-) In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to getting a lot of mileage out of publicly hating on her. Punk rock just wouldn't have been the same without Ronald Reagan and his cronies.


    TallDave: kindly bear in mind that I'm alive now thanks to our wonderful socialist healthcare system.

    Yes, in much the same sense that N Koreans are alive now because of their wonderful socialist agricultural system, except of course for the 2 million or so who starved to death.

    Hayek was not in favor of having the government run healthcare or agriculture. He was in favor of a social safety net. Virtually everyone alive supports a social safety net. But you've certainly punched out that strawman (while keeping a safe distance from my actual argument), and don't let him hit you in the ass during your victory dance because if you get prostate cancer the statistics say you're 604% more likely to die than I am.


    I do believe that post 198 destroyed your point re prostate cancer, and so we are left with your political points scoring...


    My wife may have hit the nail on the head re. the prostate cancer thing.

    In the UK men have a mortal dread of going to the docs and having a finger shoved up their arse. Its just something that most men will avoid with a dilligence that verges upon obsession. Myself I have never been for this procedure and will avoid it like the plague. Unless the world is falling out of my arse anyway.

    Parhaps Americans are just more dilligent about the old rectal poking than we are here. Or they just love going to the quack for any reason at all (even if the world isnt falling out of their ass). Well, you get the picture.


    While we're discussing things that have nothing at all to do with the state of modern education, I've got an irrelevant question - but one I suspect people here might be able to answer.

    What does the IRC !wut command do? I mean, it makes chanserv say "wut" back at you, but there must be more to it than that.

    What is !wut?

    Got to be more fun than discussing cancer rates?


    guthrie - Shush! You'll spoil it!

    TallDave - ignore him - he's working for Them. Luckily, my in-home surveillance cameras are down for a couple of minutes, so I can tell you the truth: it's totally like North Korea here and you and all your mates should definitely stay away! Don't even talk to us - it's too dangerous! I myself and all my family died of prostate cancer last year and oh no it's the Health Police breaking down the door. Tell the world [CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED]

    213: Well, okay, you guys sweet-talked me into another post. I'm a sucker for flattery. Bellingham -- the marginal effect of one specific disease that affects older men on average life expectancy is tiny. That's why LE is a terrible proxy for healthcare -- the confounding effects (diet, lifestyle) are larger than what you're allegedly measuring.


    I offered no opinion on whether your gov't was left-dominated, I said the academic world was. This is established fact in America, from what I can gather Britain is similar. The problem with this is that lefty fields of study hand out all these degrees in useless fields like Gender Studies that do little to add productivity gains to the economy. And while there are some narrow specialties in which expert knowledge is very necessary, for about 90% of education the teacher is basically there to tell you what book to study and then test whether you studied it -- which valiant duty the unions demand they paid exorbitantly for.

    I would rather advise doing things "the free market way." But maybe you could be troubled to take a look at relative PPP GDP per capita? Hmmm.


    Almost no one dies for lack of health insurance. I don't know why this is so hard for people to understand: you will be treated either way. If you're not insured, they send you a bill (the horror!).


    In other words, we're getting better care at a higher marginal cost. You say overtreating, patient X says life-saving. That's why we pay so much more: we're less willing to die, so we get more MRIs.

    Well, at least no one defended the dental system.


    Hey Tall ...

    In other words, we're getting better care at a higher marginal cost. You say overtreating, patient X says life-saving. That's why we pay so much more: we're less willing to die, so we get more MRIs.

    Erm, no. What's happening is many US men are having unnecessary treatment/surgery/etc for a condition that is not life threatening. A similar thing happens for breast cancer where one in three treatments are also unnecessary.

    If you screen for prostate cancer earlier you will catch many many many more instances (OK ... that can be 'good'), but when the statistic of choice is "5 year survival" and those people will likely live 5 years regardless of treatment it's a tad disingenuous to use it to beat pour old Blighty with.

    Comparing US vs UK "Early Detection" survival rates the UK comes out on top, perhaps suggesting that our health care is better once it gets going. The US early screening will undoubtedly find more people with prostate cancer, but many of them will undergo unnecessary procedures as the prostate cancer was never the problem that was ultimately going to kill them!


    Some stores in the US sell by volume, too. They'll pack as much ice cream into the box as they can and sell by the box size.


    UK dental treatment.... I should know better, but I will give it a go.

    Last year I needed root canal treatment. It cost me £50. My former flatmate, who emigrated to the USA a couple of years ago, also needed root canal treatment. It cost him £1,000. For the same basic procedure. And that despite him having insurance! He discovered after the fact that his insurance only covered the first £500.

    What exactly is supposed to be wrong with our dental system? We don't do lots of pointless cosmetic work but the thing about us Brits (and perhaps I speak only for the male of the species) is we're basically just not particularly vain...


    Not sure how it works in the UK, but defaulting on a standard student loan in the US can become very nasty very quickly. Unlike other types of unsecured debt, a student loan is overseen by the government and default can result in garnishment of your wages. The loan cannot even be discharged by bankruptcy. It is bad debt in the truest sense of that phrase.


    I've been using a nationalized health service in the US since 1986 and haven't had any problems.

    Thatcher revolution

    Not to knock the general accuracy of the analysis, but I recently read an article that suggested history isn't made by "heroic individuals".

    The Thatcher years were largely the result of another bubble bursting. During WW2, large numbers of women got production jobs because a lot of the men were busy in the military. When the war ended, those women didn't want to give up working. The working population of the UK roughly doubled, without the need for workers significantly increasing. There were some cycles of expansion and contraction, but the UK economy mostly staggered on by scaling up - until it finally snapped in the Thatcher years, as increased mechanisation finally put an end to the use for a large, unskilled workforce.

    The demand for graduates and highly-skilled knowledge workers has not only been going up across the whole period you've been considering, it's been going up at a massive rate. The primary driving factor behind all the changes you're examining is not graduate jobs at all, it's unskilled jobs. Specifically: what do we do with all these people now that we don't need them to operate shovels and hammers? Successive governments have applied policies of trying to shove the whole education system upwards to make more room at the bottom. It might even work (although it's likely to crack a bit under the strain).


    And a lot of the elderly men who get positive prostate cancer tests don't get treated because it would make them less healthy than they are then. My 87-year-old upstairs neighbor has prostate cancer, but he's almost certainly going to die (other problems) before the cancer will have any real effect on him; if he had the treatment, he'd probably die faster.


    Iain - The whole "dying in the US due to no insurance" is a bit of a canard and during all the recent debates in the runup to "health care reform", what was presented as evidence of this was anecdotal at best (and fabricated at worst). US hospitals (and especially ER's) do not turn away patients who are uninsured, which actually creates a very different kind of crisis.


    Knowing someone who died within the past year because she had no insurance to treat her brain tumour, I call bullshit on your statement.

    Hospitals can't turn away someone who is dying. They do, however, regularly decline to do maintenance treatment, or preventative treatment, if there's no money in it.

    Emergency care is not health care.


    Here in Texas then governor George Bush signed a law that allows the hospital to remove life support if you can't pay for it.

    So yes, thanks to conservatives there are death panels.


    All this talk of the market, the workplace...

    The market's where I buy stuff. I'm only there a couple of hours a week. The workplace is where I work. I'm only there in the daytime a few days a week.

    The rest of the time I'm living my life. And that's what my education's for. As Kurt Vonnegut remarked about a picture of a proud parent with their medal-winning swimmer child, "What sort of a maniac turns their kid into an outboard motor?"

    What sort of a maniac uses their one chance of really studying something in depth to optimise themselves for the workplace? What a shocking waste of time and mind.

    Money covers very little in life. Yes, you need some, but not a great deal. Just cover your rent and a pie and a pint now and then. A new winter coat and shoes for the wife. And a bicycle on the boy's birthday.

    Even with superb qualifications few people are lucky enough to find work they can really enjoy - essentially being paid for their hobby. For the rest of us, our lives happen at home.

    re: alleged left-wing bias in (British) academia. I don't think so. In this country our senior academics are often very much part of the establishment.



    So the case of Deamonte Driver was fabricated, misunderstood or "anecdotal at best"?

    Note his death was due to a lack of dentistry - which is also something of killer among the population of the appalachian mountains by all accounts.

    Why are USians convinced that the british have worse teeth than USians anyway? Why not mock us for other long irrelevent medical problems, like outbreaks of smallpox or cornish nationalism?


    OK, one last post.

    I don't mean to imply Britain's going the way of North Korea, of course. I'm only pointing out that government providing a service doesn't necessarily mean the service would be unobtainable or inferior if the government were not providing it -- while a North Korean may technically owe his life to the NK agricultural system, non-gov't-run agriculture systems obviously perform better, and the same is generally true of any activity that doesn't require coercion (such as regulation, roads, or redistribution, which only gov't can do).


    You really think the government doesn't do the same when its footing the bill? In Greece they are cutting off people's feet because it's cheaper treating their diabetes.

    Everyone knows there will be rationing under all systems. The debate isn't rationing vs a magical realm of infinite healthcare, it's gov't rationing vs. market rationing. Market systems evolve things like insurance with benefit ceilings to match supply and demand.


    "Unnecessary" is a medical judgment call rather than an exact science. Are you claiming a massive conspiracy on the part of all U.S. doctors? Or is it more likely that we use different standards that cost more but are more careful, and save more lives?

    I won't argue that nationalized systems aren't more efficient, because they are. In fact, the most cost efficient systems are in the poorest countries -- the first $10 per capita of medical care saves a LOT more lives than dollars $4990-$5000.

    Are you comparing UK early deteection rates to overall U.S. rates? 5-year early detection survival rates here are close to 100%, according to the ACS. I'll admit the 604% tends to favor the U.S. in a way that is not apples-to-apples, though -- but there is clearly some benefit.

    Patrick -- This.


    Relevant to the healthcare and credentialism discussion, the NHS (or rather the General Medical Council (GMC) and Royal Medical Colleges (RMC) that now handle doctor certification in the UK) do not care about education or valid credentials - the whole thing is set up to keep the barriers to entry high. Some RMCs are a bit better than others - a Pakistani anesthesiologist can waltz right in - but others, such as the Royal College of Pathology require things such as being employed 12 of the last 12 months, (no vacation time allowed, no completion of last job allowed, no locum tenens work allowed - basically if there is any reason you would want a job in the UK, they don't want you) or alternatively making two separate trips to Britain to take tests in general and internal medicine (utterly irrelevant to pathology) before perhaps being allowed to do temp work in he UK. But if a specialist wants a permanent position, that requires redoing board certification tests from scratch (which is another huge and expensive deal).

    I tried to help my father negotiate through the UK bureaucratic maze. He has Ivy-league degrees in Physics and Medicine, made Major in 20 months when drafted into the Army (despite being a registered conscientious objector), double board-certifications (equivalent to 3 UK sub-specialty certifications), 40 years experience, was Chief of Staff for a 110-bed hospital, has current medical licenses in 7 US states plus a UK direct-rule country in the Caribbean. None of that matters to the UK.

    The law says that the GMC is supposed to let anybody with equivalent certifications or even equivalent knowledge practice in the UK, but they use their discretion to keep out anybody they can. The whole thing is a bureaucratic maze with application instructions that run to about 40 pages, conflicting policies, constant buck passing between the GMC and the RMCs... it just isn't worth trying to work in the UK for specialists who have any other options.


    Hey Tall,

    If you use a stat such as "5 Year Survival" for a disease that has a greater than 5 year mortality rate, and then decide to screen people more than 5 years earlier than we do it is not surprising (indeed it is inevitable!) that you will have more people surviving those 5 years that can be counted as having that disease.

    I have only very recently had my prostate checked (not actually as uncomfortable as I imagined) because I noticed something abnormal and having reported it to my GP (AKA MD) I was seen at a brand spanking new facility just down the road within a week or so. Everything's fine (thanks for asking), but the fact remains that I had access to World Class medical care as and when I needed it.

    Obviously an individual case doesn't prove anything and I know people do slip through the net, but the net is there and catches the vast majority.


    Tall Dave @ 226 and elsewhere. Why concentrate on the BRITISH NHS? After all, (Excuse me) All the other W-European countries, and Canada, and Australia and NZ and ... Have State-funded healthcare systems!


    So why is the US better in sonme way, when it plainly isn't? What you are clearly saying is that "we are the only one marching in step, and everyone else is wrong"

    Erm, errr .. Please provide a reasoned explanation for why you are correct.
    I doubt you can.


    Leaving aside such niceties as questions about patient populations etc.

    When the American ALLHAT study arrived with somehow unexpected results, namely, old diuretics being superior to the latest poster children of medchem, some of the European medics raised questions about the relevance for Europe, namely the fact that hypertensive patients in the US have a high number of African Americans, said to fare worse with said poster children than most White Americans.

    So, with known differences of prostate cancer incidence in different ethnic groups, comparing US and UK gets tricky; good look BTW for disentangling genetic and enviromental factors or eludicating their interaction, Nobel prize, anyone?

    An interesting idea would be to compare immigrants with a similar genetic, cultural and socioeconomical background to both counties, e.g. Carribean immigrants. Any data?

    But than, to start ranting, tea baggers opposing health system reform is a good thing, at least from the point of a transhumanism advocate...


    Nice you brought up that, for at least in Germany said system was introduced by that old arch-communist, Otto von Bismarck. Now excuse me doing some headbanging...


    On the Prostate (and Testicles) front, I wonder how many of you are aware of the rapidly approaching month of Movember?

    This is an organisation, started in Australia, which is trying to promote "Men's Health" issues. This historically takes the form of growing a Moustache during November, and often being sponsored to do so.



    No thanks to TallDave for successfully derailing a useful discussion of the higher education bubble by dragging in a flame war from elsewhere on the net.

    TallDave: consider this your yellow card.

    ALL further comments on the topic of healthcare delivery will be deleted (unless they have a specific bearing on tertiary education of healthcare professionals).

    Have a nice day.

    (Sheesh. And I crawled out of bed for this ...)


    Well, at least no one defended the dental system.

    Actually WHO statistics show that people in the UK have healthier teeth than in the US.

    Doesn't leave you much does it?


    I just had a look at the website of a British university, at their news page, to get a snapshot of the kind of things they do.

    6 items - a cautious response to Browne from the Rector - summary "more money is always nice. We'll have to be kinder to students and tell them they'll earn lots in the future. We think a graduate tax is unworkable. Even more money would be nice. We are actively pursuing endowments".

    and the other 5 (to show how "socialist" they clearly are and how they waste the money of ordinary decent tax-paying ordinary decent people)

    75 million free treatments for schistosomia in sub-Saharan Africa

    A study may suggest the sun affects our climate in unexpected ways

    A global health research institute announced

    The college gets 2 THES awards

    Research suggests possible new anti-schizophrenia drugs.

    Hardly objectional stuff.

    btw:passing shot re:gender studies. Of course, there's simply no need to investigate this gigantic Glasshouse experiment we're all stuck in, right?


    Let me bring up another element that I think is driving the education bubble in the US: the ivy league universities. I watched graduation at Harvard in May and realized that there are two different systems operating in parallel there.

    The Phd. programs are filled with people who are there based truly on merit and their way is paid by the university. The school benefits from the prestige of having the cream of the crop.

    The other system serves those attending the undergraduate and professional schools. This is where the elite come to meet the elite. 8 US presidents have attended Harvard. The $50,000 a year cost is the price of access to the levers of power in our society.

    The point here is the high cost of the ivy league schools gives cover to the lesser universities to raise their prices. What is being purchased at an ivy league school is not primarily education.

    What is the equivalent system in the UK? I'm hazy as to the relative positions of Oxbridge and other universities in the UK. Is it as intensely class stratified as it is in the US?

    The reaction of the conservatives to Obama and Clinton is all about class and not much at all about the substance of policy. The token poor kids who attend the elite schools are not supposed to get uppity.

    I'm not trying to drag this into the political issues but to focus on this whole separate price distortion effect caused by the elites using the university as the place to transfer power.


    Stuart - As it stands at present, it is slightly less class-stratified in the UK. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge (and to a lesser extent, all the Russell Group universities) will have disproportionate numbers of youngsters from the upper classes, but because it costs a student no more to go to Oxford than to anywhere else, and selection for the top universities is (or is at least meant to be) by academic ability, I doubt its on the same scale as the Ivy League universities in the US. Though of course the Browne reforms may have that effect (not necessarily to be fair. I'm not quite sure how the US system works, but what appears to be proposed in the UK would at least ensure that anyone who wants to borrow to pay the fees for the most expensive courses at the most prestigious universities would be able to.) I suspect some bright kids from my kind of background are put off applying to places like Oxford and Cambridge because they imagine it will be full of braying public schoolboys - I know that's why I didn't apply. But the difference from the US, I think, is that there are no special barriers to ordinary middle class or working class kids applying to the 'elite' universities.

    All that said, I still felt a little out of place when I turned up at the halls of residence for my first year at Edinburgh (Russell Group, but not quite Oxbridge)in family's battered Ford Cortina, with only what possessions a kid from a family getting by on income support would have.


    The Russell group of universities (equivalent to the Ivy League and including Oxford and Cambridge) are likely to go for high fees, initiating a fee bubble. They cite evidence that applications increased despite introduction of fees in 2006. However, introduction of fees came with a requirement to universities to offer bursaries and undertake outreach work in schools. Evidence from 2006 and after is no guarantee that the scale of increase now being proposed will not deter students from applying in the future. Any benefit to students in terms of teaching provision also depends on additional fees increasing the global sum that universities receive for teaching rather than merely supplanting the current public provision. The latter is the more likely outcome from a government that opposes public provision. For the prospective student, the question “What is the benefit of higher education” becomes even more stark.


    Is it not simply the case that the existence of a minority of well funded (for various reasons) universities promotes inflation in a way identical to that of football ticket prices (Although I may be wrong about the latter) - one or two rich clubs enter the market for players and bid everyone else out, forcing other clubs to raise more money and bid higher, and so on. Actually very destructive in the longer term, but looks good in the short term, rather like finance capitalism or whatever you want to call the last ten years...

    Yes, there is definite stratification by wealth, the rich go to Oxbridge and the less intelligent of their brethren get a slightly different path. For example, in the 2nd half the 90's I was at St Andrews, an ok university, not too bad, reasonable at some subjects. There was someone I knew doing a divinity degree, who had an upper class background. THis person, lets call him H, got a friend to retype his divinity essay for him. Said friend was laughing all the way through retyping the essay due to the horrendous mistakes H had made in logic and english.
    Nevertheless, H spent his summer holidays working for a relative in a merchant bank in London. All he had to do was at least pass a divinity degree, something I understand wasn't that hard, and he would be quite able to find a job as a genial front man for a merchant bank or similar organisation. Thats how the less gifted of the aristocracy are looked after.

    Anyway, where was I going? Oh yes, without definite action by either the state or other representatives of the majority of the population, any attempt at bringing in higher and more variable fee's will lead to apartheid and destruction of large parts of UK higher education. The rich and upper middle class will do fine because they have the money, and the system will still have some backchannels for clever poor people to be subsumed into the power structure, but it will leave the rest of us with nothing.


    Really at the end of the day there is always going to be a need for grunts at the bottom of the working pile who do all the heavy unpleasant work. Labouring and suchlike, and there will be the vocational trained guys, plumbers and bricklayers etc. And of course that means at the very top there will be guys running the show, who should have degrees etc that qualifies them as leaders. This is the natural structure of things.

    I am worried that we are going to end up with a huge number of leaders and no grunts. If you think of the structure of the army you should see the educational end result. Officers at the top, though there arent a huge number of them, below them NCO types who could be seen as middle management types who worked their way up from gruntdom and then finally the foot soldiers. Of course it should be pyramidal in nature. Loads of foot soldiers leading up to the top brass.

    If you have a whole army of generals, then who does the actual grunt duty? There should be a large number of skilled but still low level guys who do the work. If too many people are well qualified you have a lot of people who are unwilling to do anything other than that top rank job. There will be a generation who states "I am not doing that, its beneath my education level", rather than starting at the bottom and working up, they'll want to start near the top and go higher.

    As for myself, I am probably destined for gruntdom for the rest of my life. Oh well.


    There is actually no need or even any real use for ignorant foot-soldiers or uneducated grunts these days. Any jobs for ditch-diggers nowadays require certification, training and experience in operating a JCB (ObUS: backhoe). He or more often these days she will also require certification in workplace safety -- in the UK this involves the CSCS or Construction Skills Certification Scheme which includes certification and training even for people who are simply visiting construction sites. It's the same for pretty much any sort of labouring task or factory work no matter how trivial or unskilled.

    The Western militaries have been big on ongoing education for some decades -- soldiers spend less time square-bashing and more time in the classroom learning about field hygeine, logistics, metrology, psychology, trauma medical treatment, languages, military law etc. never mind the vocational skills such as driving vehicles, construction (including plumbing), mechanical repair, cooking etc.


    In London, we appear to have agreed that the Saturday immediately after she's dead is a party in Trafalgar Square.

    Most sane companies will declare a holiday on the day itself. If you work for a company that you think won't ... well, why do you work for them?

    [Note - the IoD and the CBI probably oppose this. Not that that makes it a bad thing...]


    I'm working in Dunedin. NZ started off with the Scottish system, and we did not go as far as the UK did.

    Reasons. 1. Move to credentialism favours the compliant (who will parrot what their profs say). These people are easily managed and useful UNTIL they become academics, when being surly, obsessive, paranoid and creative is what matters. Because you have to have new ideas, get them funded and published.

  • NZ has a huge egalitarian streak. It was seen as "unfair" that certain groups did not have degrees. This is now being corrected, but we have a generation with student loans as a consequence, and plenty of PhDs serving me coffee. (No, that is not a joke).

  • The development of non discrimination laws mean that you can't say "I like his family" or "nice kilt" and hire him (or her). You can't talk about how a person will fit in. You have to use (ahem) credentials.

  • Educationists who have infected all schools of education (including medicine, which was a hold out) with their ideas around continual assessment. Which don't work. And when they are told by experts in the field who teach and have a track record in producing good graduates that they don't work, they do Laundry style attacks to get one to shut up. Which decreases the utility and discrination around the paper one has.

  • The cure is to resurrect the Scottish system from the industralised and pre industrial age: a combination of apprenticeship, guilds, and focused degrees for those selected into the professions.

    And the reading library.

    At present... if you are bright, don't go to uni unless you HAVE to be a lawyer, doctor, or a member of the clergy. Start a business. The failure of the first one will be cheaper than a degree.


    I find it odd that no one has mentioned C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures". For me the great divide between the scientific and elites and the non-scientific elites is what throws a spanner in the top-down education system in the U.K.. More than fifty years after Snow gave his lecture the non-scientific elites still control the education system and other central government affairs in the U.K. and they still show incredible ignorance and equally incredible disdain towards anything that has to do with both science and technology. They don't understand a modern technological society and they don't want to understand it.


    hell yeah, im up for the witch is dead party! me and the wife will go to that london for the weekend!


    Thats interesting .. I was just vaguely asking myself that question after my previous self question, 'I wonder why our gracious host hasn't stomped in to curb this Health Care Stuff that is doomed to March about in ever decreasing circles until it vanishes up its own arse?' was answered in that Administrative Note.

    Oh, well it is early in the subjective morning.Yes I Do Know that it is Sunday Afternoon here in the U.K. but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to!

    Whilst the Snow books are interesting they are also rather dull unless you are interested in what Snow - in an authors note at the start of my copy of " Corridors Of Power " calls " High Politics " and also says ' By some fluke the title of this novel seems to have passed into circulation during the time the book itself was being written. " The book itself is easy enough to find and is worth the effort even if it is just out of an interest in the history of the late 1950s.

    Somehow the mention of Snow called to my mind a neatly nasty little description of British Conservative Qualification for High Office .. not just High Political Office but also High Office in everything that powered Influence in Society from the civil service to the diplomatic core et al.

    The description ..the C.V. ? .. goes .. " Eton, Oxford and the Brigade of Guards "

    Just for Fun type that into google and see what you get.

    Among other things I got this item that might be of interest to Charlie . ...

    What the Mafia and Sex And The City can teach us about guilt By PIERS PAUL READ ...

    It is relevant to the threads subject I think ..

    " Members of the working class, then a coherent tribe with its own values, were in their way as confident and comfortable as the upper classes who went to Eton and Oxford or were commissioned in the Brigade of Guards. There were those who won scholarships and became upwardly mobile, who had to learn the rules of a new game and felt guilty for deserting, and in some sense betraying, their kith and kin. "

    To that I will add the personal note that when I was growing up in the 1950s ..I was born in 1949 .. there was a huge, Huge downward pressure to conformity to working class values from within the Working Class that in retrospect did hark back to a pre-war Pre first World War Society in which you were expected to Know Your PLACE.


    Top marks for the 'Shipbuilding' reference upthread.

    As for CP Snow, he was, essentially, wrong. Even though he came from Leicester. For more detail, read Warfare State by David Edgerton. Which is where I came in.


    @ 247:

    Well, don't leave us hanging. How is the the Two Cultures thesis wrong. It's certainly been my overwhelming experience, and the experience of many, many people I know and communicate with who are the science and math persuasion. A few weeks ago I was folding laundry while listening to NPR and one of the guests started quoting Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence" poem just as my daughter's mother walked into the room. It's been 30 years since I had to read it, but I picked right up with "A Resonance of Emerald . . ." and ended with " . . .The mail from Tunis, probably, An easy Morning's Ride". This astounded somehow astounded her (despite us living together for the past 17 years) because I'm a math guy. Otoh, she wouldn't know how to prove the infinitude of primes or that the square root of two is irrational if my life depended on it.

    I see this happening all the time - the science and math geeks knowing a bit of literature or music or art, their counterparts being less than hopeless at even so humble a task as adding polynomials, or what the six simple machines are.

    Are you saying this is a misperception, an artifact of my privileged position? Or that this is somehow irrelevant?


    To a first approximation, Two Cultures was wrong because scientists were in fact running the show. If you can't get hold of Warfare State, much of the argument (except the bits about HE) is also in Edgerton's England and the Aeroplane. Along with pictures of aeroplanes. Also, there's a chunk of it here: under 'elephants in the room'.


    It is nevertheless somewhat puzzling how we (talking about Germany here) arrived at a point, where in a social setting it is entirely OK and not at all rude or not done to mimick eyes-glazing-over and leave when somebody who's asked about his job replies with something that has to do with math or physics (or, to a lesser degree, engineering).

    God forbid though the nerd would do the same thing in the other direction towards a student of some arts field.

    Going further, it seems to even be necessary for polite company to make some sort of self-depreciating quip along the lines of "but I've always been bad at maths.."

    Weird, that. (also weird since the current German chancellor has a degree in physics (and is a woman), both facts that don't make her any less horrible a chancellor)

    Anyway .. uh .. where was I going

    ah yes, just wanted to add that the whole economisation of Universities is not constrained to the anglo sphere, have been witnessing it for a while now also in my home country of Austria and in Germany where I live. Mostly, the thrust of politics seems to be that Universities should churn out "what Businesses need" (politicians think that means mostly economy students, law-students and a few engineering ones. also of course medicine). Added to that a bit of science (physics and that) because it always looks good in the news. Arts? Burn it to the ground, good-for-nothing losers the lot of them. At least that's what politicians seem to be saying, more or less (we even had a University-rektor in my hometown Innsbruck (economy-professor himself) who outright said that a - only economy graduates were needed at all, in this day and age b - he wants to close down the whole arts faculty .. odious man, that

    Anyway, that's maybe the one difference to the anglo sphere, the two-cultures thing runs along different lines here. I.e. people who run things never studied literature or something like that, they ALL studied law or economy. Doesn't make them any better at running a country, I can tell you that.


    @ 249:

    To a first approximation, _Two Cultures_ was wrong because scientists were in fact running the show.

    What the!?!?!?!?!?! I can't speak too vehemently for elsewhere, of course, but here in the United States that is so far beyond truth that it's almost anti-truth.

    Just what evidence can you bring to bear to support what is to my mind a rather incredible thesis?


    I should also add, Chris, that insisting "It's all there in the book. Read it." is (at least in my mind) poor form. I shouldn't have to invest this much time in listening to a podcast or in attempting to track down a book someone mentions and then have to read it.

    What is your actual evidence that the thesis is wrong, and why do you consider it to be evidence?


    SoV: you may be "here in the United States" but neither Chris nor I are American, and this topic is not a discussion of American education policy and it's failings but of British policy, upon which C. P. Snow was commenting.

    Your reference points are wrong and you're in danger of attempting to derail a hitherto productive discussion. Please don't do that.


    " Doesn't make them any better at running a country, I can tell you that. "

    No, it doesn't. But 'Better ' isn't a concept that is an absolute, and the Powers that Be at the top end of any Pyramid of the Ruler-ship will define 'better ' as being what is Best For US and what WE can persuade Them - the Ruled - is TRUE.

    If you are at the top of the pyramid then all that you have to do is Persuade the Great ..insert the populace of your choice .. that they Do agree with You ... and that they have always done so ... and They will Die to Defend the Truth -your Truth as defined by You - or They will have some-one else die to defend that TRUTH!


    In the U.K too I'm afraid ..the Ruling Mandarin/Aristocratic Class were not Scientists but knew how to RULE Scientists ..just as they knew how to Rule Soldiers.

    The Then Powers that Be Knew how to manage People like Margaret Thatcher when the more obviously Upper Class Rulers became unacceptable to the ruled.. as a Reward for her success at imitating her betters Big Maggie became Baroness Thatcher and a Living Saint of the Conservative ..hang on to what we've got like grim death... movement.

    Aristocratic Rulers remain as the tools of Ruler-ship only notice them when they get the new Rules Wrong and thus lose their heads.


    @ 253:

    SoV: you may be "here in the United States" but neither Chris nor I are American, and this topic is not a discussion of American education policy and it's failings but of British policy, upon which C. P. Snow was commenting.

    That's as may be. And as I admitted, I don't know the details in the U.K. But this assertion seems to be wildly at variance not just with the U.S., but with most everywhere else (though again, I'm speaking as someone is more familiar with the front page than the back of international politics and economics.) Are you really saying that the science and math guys are the ones in charge in the U.K.? That seems to me to be an incredible claim.

    Oh - it suddenly occurs to me that you're disputing not my incredulity, but rather it's relevance. I had assumed that the connection was that education policy would be different than it is now if only the technocrats were in charge. If that assumption is unwarranted, well, it's still relevant - I would think that "scientific" (for various values of scientific) rule would have a profound impact on education policy.


    Today's WashPost has a map of the types of degrees people have in the Metropolitan DC area, which turns out to be the most-degreed city in the country. (My city is in P.W., near the left bottom.)


    One thing that has not been mentioned here is that relying on loans to pay off increased university fees will have unpleasant side effects. Expect to see graduates shun less remunerative, but socially useful jobs because it will become harder to pay back their loans. For example, medical students will be more likely to become a well paid specialist instead of say becoming a GP. Partly for this reason that in the States, something like 70% of all physicians are specialists, while in Australia I know it is the other way around. They will also want to charge more for their services so that in the long term, savings by the government in education may be offset by additional costs in other areas.


    Were they? I'm British, born in the late 70's and don't think that has been true in my lifetime. Certainly it is or was more likely that someone with a science background would get absorbed into the establishment, but that usually means they subordinate themselves to establishment drives and philosophy, not anything else like helping students get through university with less debt or avoiding the destruction of university research. Or maybe there was a better time 40 to 70 years ago when this was in fact the case, and it has been reversed in the last 30 years.


    On a related note: how would one go about automating dishwashing in a restaurant, and at what point would the most human intervention occur? Assume that all the dishes, flatware and stemware have been swept more or less indiscriminately into a tub placed on top of a trolley.

    Is this something that could be done right now? Five years from now?


    @ 258:

    One thing that has not been mentioned here is that relying on loans to pay off increased university fees will have unpleasant side effects. Expect to see graduates shun less remunerative, but socially useful jobs because it will become harder to pay back their loans.

    Here, what you see is that in some cases those high loans are at least partially forgiven if you put in five years or so effectively working for the government as a contract laborer. Teachers who work in "at risk" environments for example.

    I could see a trend arising very easily where government-subsidized education in general (read, student loans) is offset by government employment and debt forgiveness. It could be that this would evolve into the government as the employer of last result - backing into some sort of Socialism as it were, while keeping most of the outward forms of Capitalism.

    Another program I could see is some form of Federal Service (of the sort Heinlein said he meant to depict in ST.) Why not? Here in the U.S. we've got all sorts of scut labor-intensive jobs that need to be done at low cost. Instead of going abroad, meeting interesting people, and killing them, tomorrow's troopers could be more productively employed emptying bedpans, delivering meals to shut-ins, etc. This is the sort of work that doesn't need any sort of advanced degree btw, and there could be considerable opportunities to learn on the job.


    Dishwashing in restaurants IS automated; the kitchen staff load everything into a basket on wheels and slide it into position, pull down a hood and that starts the washing process. When it's finished a bell rings, the hood pops up and the basket is wheeled along the counter to be unloaded while another basket is slid into place under the hood.

    Nobody washes dishes by hand today except in the smallest corner-store type restaurants. For one thing machine-washing is a lot more hygienic than hand-washing, more thorough and uses higher temperature water and accurately metered cleansing agents. It's worth noting (and getting back to the headline subject) that anyone employed in food prep these days needs certification showing they've been through a training course in hygiene and food safety law.


    @ 262:

    Then that's not really automated, is it? In fact, what you describe is pretty much how we used to do it thirty-odd years ago[1]. The hard parts, the sorting and the putting up still haven't been relegated to the machines yet. Is this yet another technology that's been coming Real Soon Now for some time?

    [1]Actually, what we did was sort everything out first. Then the racks went down the conveyor belt into the washer and stacked up when they came out the end. This last part could very easily have been done by machine even then.


    @248 249 YES! Most of the science/technical types know quite a lot about the "arts", but the arties are woefully ignorant about true knowledge (TM) ... I can still quote "Ozymandias" and "The Lawyer's Farewell to Charing-Cross" for example. As for the technocrats being in charge, what rubbish. I suggest you look up the CV's of (in reverse order) Cameron, Broon, B.Liar, Major - NONE of them had any science education, AFAIK. Nor did Callaghan, Wilson, Heath, Hume, MacMillan, Eden, Churchill, Attlee, Chamberlain, Baldwin, MacDonald, Lloyd George or Asquith. (Which I think covers the past 100 years ...)

    @ 250 Und, was is los mit Angela Merkel?

    SoV @ 256 No, you are correct. Remember what I said about the madwoman dancing for joy over the wreckage of the Brit space programme?


    Sounds eerily familiar... Though I doubt Heinlein enjoying the view of the long-haired[1] freaks running after the altenpflegerins[2] and getting freaked out on dangerous addictive drugs[3].

    Concerning the financial burden of military and civil service, there are stories to tell, also about the usefullness of this institution compared to the other options, namely subsidized jobs for the unemployed in the same functions.

    [1] Hey, I was a part-time metalhead then. And still am, somhehow. [2] Even though some were red-haired. [3] It was smoking cigarettes or eating the food. In retrospect, I think my choice was healthier, choke[4]... [4] OK, I forgot about the human guinea pigs in STT.


    Apparently, the shortage of university places for the school-leavers of 2010 has come about because of a huge increase in the numbers of overseas students, who pay higher fees.

    That may be a significant part of the reason why the university expansion hasn't made a big difference to the percentage of school leavers going into university.


    Spot on Dave - the thing about overseas (outside EU) students is that they are all profit: one of them is worth about four home students (to a conventional university, not to mine alas) when it comes to covering overheads. And they are less likely to complain. Given the giant cuts about to be announced in government HE funding, look out for more overseas students coming to a university near you.


    For example, medical students will be more likely to become a well paid specialist instead of say becoming a GP.

    Minor nit: GPs are really well paid in the UK right now -- GP partners earn, on average, £105,000 a year. Which isn't a lot by US standards ($170K), but medical liability insurance is a lot cheaper in the UK.

    I'm more worried about nursing, which is now a 100% graduate-entry profession, but not remotely as well paid. A lot of the grunt work is done by lower-level nursing auxiliaries, and we're in danger of seeing patient care professionals priced out of the field between lower-training/lower-skill auxiliaries and specialist medics.


    An application by an Open University Lecturer for promotion was turned down recently by senate.

    Nothing unusual about that, but the nature of the application WAS interesting. It was based on an attempt at demonstrating an electronic academic reputation metric (think Manfred as a Professor...).

    The application was prepared by gathering feedback (references) from his readers and the entire process was open (from his end).

    The Blog entry is here and there is some really interesting stuff on there - relevant, applicable, even cutting edge. Sounds like research, but it isn't recognised as such by a system that requires to regulate a specific market.

    I think you hit it in 10 - there is a difference between teaching, training, and research. An aspirational society requires an ever increasing inflation of ... well, aspiration. And it so it comes down to economics again - 'value' (45) is defined by qualifications, requires more qualification. Forget the skills, the experience, the years of practice - just desire the qualification.

    So we end up with an education market - top brands, mass production, and even a black market (want to publish a paper about how HIV doesn't lead to AIDS in Africa? Just make your own journal or pay to get a paper 'fast-tracked'!).

    Don't worry - it's just another property market bubble that will burst. Who's holding the sub-primes?

    Sh*t - I was just a lurker here. Damn you and your interesting discussions.


    I haven't seen/used a professional dishwasher for a long time, but you did still have to put the items in, then the machine ran and dried if you wanted (less electricity if it doesn't dry and you don't need the dishes, etc. too soon) and then you put the items away.

    A lot of restaurants don't have enough room for these, though, and hire guys to do it.


    Problem with liberal arts is you can require whatever balanced-diet type broad-spectrum course-load you like. What the majority of successful students learn their first few years of college is how to earn enough money to support their substance abuse habits while not failing out. You can lead a teenager to art class - but he'll probably just pay somebody for the notes and cheat on the test....

    I think traditional higher education in the US is going to be in trouble, as there is an explosion of efficient, focused, small colleges without the big university overhead, overpaid tenured professors, sports and research expenses, etc. They focus primarily on degrees with a high chance of reasonable employment after graduation, i.e. nursing (or med/pharm techs), IT studies, accounting/business, etc.

    I think 'Learning to Learn' is a skill our middle schools should be charged with. before the 50's, 14-year-olds were expected to be adults, or mini-adults - they didn't have 10 years of no-responsibility boozing to look forward to with a few hours of 'lecture' mixed in. Teaching impressionable young teenagers that the library (when I was a kid) or teh internetz (in modern times) is an opportunity to learn anything you're interested in free. Modern education seems to focus more on reinforcing the belief that you can't learn anything unless an 'expert in the field' is spoon feeding you.

    While our gracious host has mentioned a handful of times here that he regrets not having the opportunity to have history, art, poli-sci, or other lib-arts coursework forced on him, I would posit that while OGH may be the curious/brilliant/motivated learner that would retain and grow from such requirements, the vast majority of lib-arts types I know only memorized enough to pass the test with no indication of retention or broadened horizons. Furthermore, you get into the age-old issue of what do you include in a core lib-arts curriculum? Art, Lit, History, Women's Studies, Minority Studies, Comparative Religions, etc. Given the broad spectrum of source material, what is worthy of being forced into the head of every young aspiring law-man or accountant to 'make them a better person'. Not to offend any academics in the crowd, but I concur with the thought, particularly in stodgy educational institutions full of people with 'documented knowledge' that has no market-value, those that can't do - 'teach', or hide at University and inflate the importance of the irrelevant field of knowledge they 'specialized' in - i.e. Appalachian novels from 1914-1916, Acid-Jazz from 1968-1971, Belgian impressionists of the 1830's, or some similar absurdly narrow niche that the educator's PhD thesis topic explored in depth....

    As far as what higher education should be? I vote for part-time educators with real-world jobs who can provide real insight into the modern world and their experiences in it. As opposed to life-long academics who were so comfortable with the campus life they stayed for life - and thus avoided upsetting their delusions of reality with any real-world experiences.

    Another angle referenced, which is true in most places I imagine, is that the government-loans program gives the government leverage over the state education system, there is only 1 university in the states that stands alone with no federal or federal student loan funding. Every other university is easily led by whatever regulations, bias, or direction comes along with the federal funding and 'student-loan' money. Their focus and purpose is further perverted with the ridiculous research 'grants' to the extent that 80% of a tenured prof's responsibility is to ensure the paperwork renewing the grant payments is filed on-time and with sufficiently flowery horse-manure to ensure the cash keeps coming. and then the grant money is spent on new sports facilities or the university president's private jet......

    maybe the reason so many kids go to college is because so many parents have been told they will be judged by what becomes of their children - and being a parent of a drug-addict attending college is more prestigious than being the parent of a plumber or auto-mechanic - even if the long-term income prospects for these trades are better on average than accountant or network administrator.


    Revisiting something very unpleasant in the current news; This comment article tells you all you need to know about how completely F*ed-up the English non-education system is.


    Guthrie, you're on the money when you suggest that it might have changed: scientists were running the show in the 1950s, but by the 1980s, not so much. That's why I wrote 'were running the show'. If I'd meant 'are running the show' I'd have written that instead, what with it being shorter.


    Gotcha. But then how did they lose any control that they had, and what is the status within the establishment these days of scientists? As far as I can tell everyone is finance and 'entrepreneur' mad and scientists are just treated as cheap employees, hmmm, wait, does that mean they want to deprofessionalise science as well?


    There already exist in house journals for homeopathy, climate change denial and creationism. I can see that desperate for cash universities would give them a greater veneer of respectability. We'd end up with well known variations in university quality, such that knowing which one you went to is important, and the smaller and worse ones end up like colleges again.
    Plus until people knew which institutes were ok and which weren't, there would be a great deal of poor communicaiton and inefficiences in terms of decision making, rather like what happens when the privatise services - they get worse for a while before getting back to what they used to be like, as it takes time for the new managers and workers to get the hang of things.


    Greg - you're using an opinion piece from the Telegraph as evidence that the UK education system is in a bad way? That's... remarkably trusting. You know it's called the Torygraph for a reason?

  • The development of non discrimination laws mean that you can't say "I like his family" or "nice kilt" and hire him (or her).
  • And damn right too. Are you seriously suggesting that we should back to the good old days, so-called, when women, wogs and workers knew their place?

    I know a certain part of the UK where 'no Catholics need apply' helped produce a shooting war in which thousands of people died. You're obviously not as smart as you think you are, if you haven't considered that angle on this matter.


    @ 270:

    I haven't seen/used a professional dishwasher for a long time, but you did still have to put the items in, then the machine ran and dried if you wanted (less electricity if it doesn't dry and you don't need the dishes, etc. too soon) and then you put the items away.

    Right. At some point human judgment and human skill at manipulating arbitrary objects placed haphazardly together kicks in. That's a really tough thing to automate, at least so far.

    I ask because, inevitably, after such machinery becomes a technical and economic reality, the only reason not to replace human workers doing stuff in the service industry which consists mostly of these hard-to-automate tasks is for cost reasons.

    What you would see then is that merit and skill would mean even less than it does today, and that you would get a (imho) social setup that resembles something like what you would be much more likely to associate with an agrarian or extractive economy, as opposed to a value-added manufacturing economy. In those situations, whether you're out in the fields picking cotton or in the big house making big deals while sipping sherry and complaining about the help is almost entirely a matter of birth. And it doesn't matter how much or how little education you have.

    It's as if people are scrambling to get on the ladder before it's pulled up, and education is held out as one of the very few remaining ways to grab onto the lower rungs before it is lifted out of reach. Lifeboat rules. Which explains the desperation and the inflation.


    You can see several examples in this thread of people who think that only a certain percentage of the populace need booklearning.

    What I'd like to ask those commentators is, what jobs do you expect the rest of the population to do, now that manual work has been largely automated and/or exported?

    Don't know about other commentators, but I think most of the population needs some booklearning, but much less than traditional sheepskin calls for.

    I have a B.S. in mathematics and M.S. in computer science. I have worked in various software jobs for 20 years, plus some stints in hardware and in teaching. I would say all the schooling I actually use professionally could have fit into 2 years without any increase in courseload pace -- and that includes two semesters of creative writing, which I find very useful indeed.

    I got a degree, and then graduate degree, because in my social circles it was just what one did. Which is not a good reason, now that I look back.


    Just to check - did you know what you were going to use of your schooling before you started it? For example, doing a chemistry degree gets you exposed (Or it did 10 years ago) to organic, inorganic and physical chemistry, and although they overlap you'll end up specialising in a specific part of one of them, and thus ultimately 2/3 of what you learnt is of no use to you. Unless of course you change job or something unusual comes up. Certainly I've found odd bits of chemistry come up years later and it turns out to be mildly useful that I learnt it originally.


    Or, heck, you get euphoricide (we discussed The Humanoids for bookgroup on Saturday).


    @276 277 I'm fully aware of the political leanings of all our "serious" newspapers, thank you. However, the teacher in question was stating public support for the policies of the democratically-elected government - for which she was sacked. NOT ON. I understand she was very careful NOT to name any particular school, which might, just, have been a legitimate cause for concern and disciplinary action.

    Whistleblowing is always a dangerous game, but in so public and so vital an area as this (long-term) the behaviour of the school/local authority bosses is profundly undemocratic and totalitarian.


    Oops - I forgot to say ... This (the experience of Ms Birbalsingh) is one of the principal reasons I gave up trying to teach, back in 1992/3


    Greg - As I said, it's obvious that Ms Birbalsingh's boss was completely out of line. And, yes, whistleblowing should always be protected - that's one of the most important things that unions can do. Although, unlike the Telegraph, I don't think the way she was treated was exactly like communist Russia. (Remember communist Russia? Most Telegraph readers do, evidently.)

    I have my own opinions of the democratically-elected government and their views on education, but I work in a university so today probably isn't the best time to go into that.


    Just to check - did you know what you were going to use of your schooling before you started it?

    For the most part, yes. Last night I went over my college transcript from graduate school, and second two years undergraduate (could not find the transcript from my first college). I tried to see a) what am I actually using, and b) did I anticipate it at the time. Two sets nearly match -- although there are several courses which I took only because I enjoyed them -- and fully expected never to use them professionally (and was right). Like a course in Roman Architecture. But if you are forced to fill the "general education" requirements, might as well select something you actually like.


    99% of children are exceptional. Ask any parent. It'll be tough but 50% is an unrealistic target for university placement.

    The top 10%, the most gifted of school leavers should be allowed to attend university.

    The next 20 to 30% should attend trade colleges and enter vocational training.

    Obviously that leaves a fairly large chunk of the freshly minted workforce untrained, however I can envisage a situation where the upper echelons will be encouraged to maintain larger houses and an equally large staff of servants, thereby also solving the housing conundrum potentially facing the mass of low-earning, unskilled workers who will now be expected to live on site and not have to worry about either student debts or a mortgage. Utopia is within our grasp.

    I imagine there will still be upwards of 10% of the population creating a drag on society. For them there will always be rewarding "work" to be found at the Soylent Green factory.


    I must say that this question cannot usefully be extended far enough. --Wrong country on this link perhaps but I'd like to think it's not a controversial statement that the public schooling systems of western civilization have been political footballs since their very beginnings. It wasn't just about reading, writing and arithmetic but very intentionally (and unintentionally) a method of performing indoctrination and social control. The same thing also happens at universities in addition to the social signaling functions of their qualifications, their community institution roles and the nominal functional purposes of research and teaching. I would be very interested if there's anyone at all who's adequately equipped to discuss possible changes to the university system with a strong grasp of what the ten year and thirty year effects are likely to be. Keep in mind that quantum computing working cheaply and well sometime within that period could by itself drastically alter projected from actual progressions (as the danged singularity may proceed directly from that in short order).

    This all said my own amateur, lay-hypothesis is that increasing industrial automation capabilities will definitely keep progressing to the point that automated is cheaper than the cheapest third world country for pretty much everything. Also I think that it's within sight that increasing IT capabilities could extend the modernizing benefits of ERP into a clawback of the stranglehold bureaucracy has on much of western society in and out of the public sector (already happening in the private sector). I don't know what people will be doing fifty years from now but it seems to me that the office and the factory are dying. Who has the rest of this puzzle?


    Ahh, that seemed to work for you, although it sounds like you are in the USA, where they do things differently from the UK. Lots of people I know havn't used significant parts of their degree after graduation, perhaps because i know lots of science and other graduates.


    I think you misunderstand. I too "havn't used significant parts of their my after graduation". My point is I expected that to be the case before I graduated, and had a fairly accurate idea which parts this were.


    That's pretty funny. I copied and pasted part of guthrie's post, and tried to replace "their" with "my", but replaced "degree" with "my" instead. Oops!


    Students defaulting in the US? Unpossible!

    Literally impossible. Defaulting or even personal bankruptcy does not discharge the debt, it just gets shuffled around instead and keeps growing all the while, with all kinds of juicy penalties added. When the long-suffering student finally reaches the point where the federal government gives up (should only take a few decades) he is hit with a hefty IRS "gift" tax. And failure to pay taxes lands you in jail.

    Reading the above link is the kind of thing that sets your blood boiling and makes you wish a horrible death on lawmakers who care more about being tough on miscreants than actually showing any compassion.


    I can't say I noticed, since I recognised the string of words.


    This seemed too good not to post somewhere. There's a hint from Kevin Robinson here:


    With the tuition fees being what they are, I have been wondering for some time when American students will start applying to non-American institutions since the degree quality is comparable and the price much less. I know that the University of St. Andrews in Scotland recruits undergraduates in the States, but I don't known whether other unis do it too.


    When prince Harry went there a few years ago applications from teenage femal americans quadrupled, or so I was told.


    @280: That's interesting, because for me it was quite the opposite. I dropped out of uni, and went on eventually to become a sysadmin and computer programmer. It was only after about twenty years in the "real world" that I started to understand what CS is all about, and started to study it, to my great benefit.

    This is, of course, entirely anecdotal evidence. And I won't say this attitude of mine (I'm really starting to enjoy the math) made me either rich or popular in the business world. (It appears rather the opposite, in fact.)


    @297: Agreed with your comments, similar to my scenario. I am not a programmer but a 1st level Consultant having over almost 20 years worked my way through Operations, then Application support, Consulting at a Partner, layed off there, started doing Support at the Vendor and now Consulting at the Vendor. My studies have definitely increased these last few years. With a couple of buddies, who also dropped out, have half wondered what we would have done if there was no IT.


    I dropped out of college after the first year (family problem) but ended up Senior Scientist at a major defense contractor* (from which is where I'm on long-term disability).

    *Which is now, like all defense contractors, starting to branch out.



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    This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 13, 2010 10:44 AM.

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