Maria’s post about America got me thinking about issues to do with social mobility. Here I want to offer some completely data free speculations, to float a hypothesis for commenters to shoot down if they want to. That hypothesis is that there’s far too much higher education in Western societies and that it constitutes a real barrier to social mobility (and is probably bad for demographics too). To put it in a nutshell: strategies for improving social mobility by getting a broader swathe of the population into higher ed are bound to fail because it is too easy for the middle classes to maintain their grip on access to education. A better strategy would be to take that card out of middle class hands by abandoning the insistence on credentials that aren’t materially relevant to the job at hand.
In a recent scandal in the UK, the head of an NHS trust was fired and prosecuted for falsifying his qualifications. He didn’t have a university degree, but felt the need to claim that he did in order to give himself a fighting chance of getting the top job. Clearly what he did was wrong, but would he have been a better candidate for that job if he had actually acquired a degree? Fifty years ago many jobs: managerial, sales, even being a solicitor (lawyer) could be done be people without degrees. Nowadays many employers won’t even look at an uncredentialled candidate and many roles have been defined so that possession of the right certificates is a formal requirement.
But for many jobs there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that a person with a degree in English literature, philosophy, chemistry or media studies will be any better in-post than someone who never went near a university. Yet today those people are excluded from any possibility of getting into many careers. Ditto, for the most part, careers in politics: Attlee’s cabinet contained real members of the working class who had risen through the trade unions; Blair’s is largely composed of graduates, often law graduates.
The NuLab approach to social mobility and opportunity is to get a wider swathe of the population into higher education, to widen access. I have no doubt that giving more working-class people the opportunity to get into higher education is a good thing in itself, if that’s what they want. But the middle classes are really pretty good at securing advantage for themselves within the education system and, hence, at getting their children ahead in the queue for credentialled jobs. Improving social mobility through improving access to higher education therefore strikes me as a policy that is almost certain to fail. On the other hand, decredentializing the labour market immediately gives a range of people with real talents and abilities and on-the-job experience a chance to do better for themselves.
One objection might be that we (collectively) really need all those graduates and that without them we’ll fall behind in the “global knowledge economy”. But I’m skeptical. We need some such people, but we don’t need people who have spent three years ingesting hogwash lectures about the semiotics of advertising or whatever and have then emerged with their one-size-fits-all 2.1 degree. Many of the people on those degree courses are only on them because they believe they need a degree to get a good job. In many ways it would be better if we waived the credential requirements, got them into the labour market earlier, and saved them the pain of student loan repayments, years of debt, crappy lectures, and so forth.
Another thing to mention is that whilst the possession of credentials has become more and more a necessary condition for career success and high lifetime earnings, it looks like less and less of a sufficient condition. More people are being pushed through the higher ed system with the promise that they will get higher earnings, but very very many of them are not actually doing any better . Unless their studies are of instrinsic benefit to them—which they very well may be—those people are spening years of their lives acquiring tickets to a lottery even though their number is less and less likely to be drawn as the proportion of graduates increases. Those people are simply engaged in pointless and wasteful jockeying for positional advantage.
Of course a massive cut in the proportion of school leavers who go to university would be bad news for one group of people: university teachers. But there’s no reason to keep lots of second-rate universities in business if the common good doesn’t require them. And there would be, I suspect, another great benefit of decredentializing the economy: people wouldn’t have to stay in higher education for years and years just to get hold of a valuable piece of paper. Naturally, people placed under pressure to do so put off having families until they’re done. Those that want to could, in a decredentialized society, reproduce earlier and thereby perhaps ease worries about dependency ratios etc.
(I know that Alison Wolf has been pushing a skeptical line on the value of higher education expansion, though I’m not really familiar with her work. But here’s a link to one of her op-ed pieces . )