Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Losing the race to university

Reuters reports that Britain has failed to increase the proportion of its young people at the same rate as other developed countries. While the British rate has increased from 48% to 52% since 1998 the OECD as a whole saw a rise from 40% to 53%. As such, the average has overtaken us.

The economic consequences of this failure, or insufficient success, should not be overstated. Proportions of your population in higher education shows little correlation to economic performance. Porter, in his study of competitive advantage, noted that it was not the total numbers attending university that made the difference to a country's performance but the number and size of those institutions whose reseach was of internationally competitive standards. As such, the OECD's figure has little to do with the variable which is most economically important.

The rationale for expanding the numbers in university is not economic but social. University builds the middle class. When someone has been to university they are equipped with the skills, aspiration and accent that make them able to move in middle class circles without fear. This makes a difference to their earning potential but is sought, and pushed for by parents, for status reasons as much as anything else, I believe. I'm not sure it will be entirely successful; it is far too easy to separate out the new entrants to university education from the others through an innocuous query as to which university they attended.

Despite this it is an entirely decent aspiration which will improve the fortunes and prospects of the young people in question. Even if those from the old guard universities can still identify their own those at the new universities are still broadening their minds, hopefully, gaining some abilities which will serve them well in future and gaining the aspiration to work with their minds rather than with easily replaceable hands. However, these benefits are largely private and do not have the 'public good' implications that increasing national income did and, therefore, undermine the case for publically funding universities.

1 comment:

edmund said...

actually Matt the expansion of univeristy has been disproportanatley middle class (ie HE particuly recently has grown more middle class even as it has grown)

moreover this has serious effects on social mobility-because of the signaling powers of degrees the resulf of the expansion of HE is to increase the number of profession which you need a degree for and hence increase the relativlvey social opportunities of the middle class vs the non middle class

Indeed education economists belive the expanson of higher education has been a major cause of falling social mobility in the west.

this was in the IEa's journal some time ago.