I’m going to look at education in purely social and economic terms in this post – nothing about whether higher education makes you a better, wiser or more fulfilled person. That’s for another day.
The lifetime financial benefit of higher education in Ireland is higher than the OECD average. Many people see this as a good thing and evidence of our transition to a knowledge economy. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, including the fact that averages can often be misleading. Earnings are very much affected by field of study and degree classification. And we know, for example, that many of the professions in Ireland earn sums that are completely at odds with the value those professions bring to society – think barristers and our numerous, ridiculously expensive tribunals.
Interestingly, OECD data suggest that the Irish population is one of the most over-educated in Europe, i.e. many graduates are doing jobs that really don’t require them to have spent a full three/four years in college. It’s also interesting to discover that the most commonly-held jobs in Ireland are in retail, farming and administration, which suggests that the knowledge economy is only a small subset of our total economy. (There are twice as many people working in residential and social care than in IT, despite all the hype around the latter.)
It’s interesting to see the financial benefit of higher education from an international perspective (see below).
It’s hard not to get the feeling that the more progressive and equal societies (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) are precisely those where the financial benefits of higher education are actually relatively low. And if you think about, it makes sense because it means that those who cannot afford to go on to higher education (or who don’t want to) still have the chance to make a good living. And it’s hard not to think that Ireland, having put so many of its eggs in the higher education basket – perhaps because for some time we have tried to convince ourselves that ours would be a knowledge economy – we have only succeeded in perpetuating inequality, and perhaps even made our inequality problem worse.
We really need to stand back from all of this and in doing so not just fall back into the same old clichés about apprenticeships, even if a return to the white-collar apprenticeship systems of the 1970s and 1980s would be welcome. (Think nurses, actuaries, accountants, solicitors.)
Not being an economist, I’m not sure how to interpret this data but it does seem to me that our constant emphasis on higher education is at odds with the real needs of our economy. In his book “The case against education”, Bryan Caplan suggests that the main role of higher education is to signal to employers that prospective employees have attributes like work-ethic, conscientiousness and conformity. If his argument holds water then our higher education system is a very expense subsidy for the HR departments of private companies.
We need to ask if our emphasis on higher education appropriate given the structure of our economy and we also need to ask if we need to do more for those who cannot, or who don’t want to attend higher education.
Here’s a radical suggestion: I think we need to think about the hiring practices of employers and think about whether demanding certain educational qualifications of applicants might be discriminatory. If an employer cannot demand that a candidate has a certain gender or a certain age or a certain skin colour, then why should they be able to demand, without justification, a level of education that will effectively discriminate against school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds? This might sound a little idealistic or even unworkable, but better regulation of recruitment practices could have profound benefits not just for our education system but for our society as a whole. It would open up lots of high-quality white-collar jobs to the disadvantaged; it would take the heat out of the points race; it would reduce the pressure on graduates to gain expensive post-graduate qualifications; and most importantly it would start a necessarily evidence-informed conversation about what the real benefits of formal, full-time higher education are. But it would need the HE sector to seriously consider the idea of downsizing. So, I’m not sure this idea will gain traction.