It’s education stupid

Gerry Holtham says we need some new thinking on encouraging postgraduate study in Wales

We are not doing a good job for our young people and we need some big changes. That’s true whether you are thinking of Wales or the UK as a whole, though the UK can do more about it.

Consider the recent disturbances and lootings in London and elsewhere. Pure criminality, says the government. At the level of the individual that is right. If someone is arrested for trashing a shop and stealing goods, it is irrelevant that he is poor, from a broken home, has never had a job etc. He must be treated as a moral agent and held responsible for his actions. If they are illegal he deserves the punishment prescribed by law.

But at the level of the mass phenomenon we are supposed to look for explanations – not to excuse perpetrators but so we can design policies to reduce the chances of such things occurring. Stepping up policing and imposing draconian sentences are not good enough, certainly not on their own. You cannot just terrorise alienated youths into compliance. We used to hang people for stealing but it didn’t stop theft.

The social origins of things like the looting are all very complex, some people say. Well yes and no. Full explanation always leads to complexity. As science-fiction writer Poul Anderson said “there is no problem, however complicated, that when looked at in the right way does not become still more complicated.” Yet no-one can remember the last time that the youths of St John’s Wood in London went out looting. And if trouble were to happen around Cardiff and you had to guess where it occurred, there would be more bets on Ely than on Penarth.

The way the economy has gone there just isn’t enough well-paid work for poorly educated young men. Mining has closed, manufacturing is not a large-scale employer. Construction can employ only so many and it tends to be both seasonal and cyclical. Semi-literate youngsters with no prospect of a job and so no hope of getting their own home and supporting a family are likely to feel outside society and less bound by its values. It’s the job of the police to catch them and the judge to bang them up if they commit serious crime but the job of the politician is to minimise such social conditions – not just prate about criminality.

The standard response for years has been “education”. If we want employment at better wages than Chinese factory workers we have to “upskill” and the whole economy has to “move up the value chain”. There are two problems with that solution: it is inadequate and we are not doing it anyway.

In current circumstances there are only two ways to employ the less skilled or less motivated people in society. One is to identify useful but not hugely challenging jobs that are not getting done in the market economy, raise taxes substantially to finance them and arrange employment to get them done. We could refurbish old buildings, insulate every home, cultivate public parks and gardens, provide more carers. To do that at a living wage would entail much higher taxes so people are not keen.

The other route is protectionism. Instead of importing certain goods or services, we declare them reserved areas for domestic employment. We simply ban designated imports and get them produced more expensively at home (the Japanese, for example, would not import rice). That would reduce the real income of most people since they would pay more but transfer it to the new workers in the protected businesses. It would also cause international uproar, being so opposed to current economic orthodoxy, and threaten international retaliation.

The riots have been nothing like bad enough for politicians to contemplate either of those radical measures. So my prediction is there will be similar upheavals in future. We may just decide to live with them, as Americans do, because the cost of tackling the problem is too painful.

And what of education? Its ability to tackle these social ills is limited. As for upskilling, please don’t make me laugh. Consider the situation at Cardiff University, where I am an honorary prof. The university has plenty of British, indeed Welsh, undergraduates. But graduate students? In the Business School at any rate they are nearly all foreign, overwhelmingly Chinese. British students just don’t do post-graduate degrees in economics or finance. We reserve all our highest instruction and training for foreigners. The way we upskill relative to the Chinese is to train our own kids to BA level but reserve the MSc and PhDs for those very Chinese. For a sign of a country that is clueless about its future, look no further.

Why is that? The main reason is finance. The British kids having run up debts of £20,000 or more getting their first degree are anxious to find a job and make money. They cannot contemplate spending another £12,000 on a masters. Meanwhile the university needs to charge up for graduate degrees to balance the books so energetically courts the Chinese. A second, subsidiary reason is postgraduate work in finance – or engineering come to that – requires competence in maths. Too few British kids leave school with that competence.

Now the first problem is soluble. Why did my generation have free university education and means tested grants to support us while youngsters today don’t – even though the country as a whole is much richer now? Because then only about 5 per cent of people went to university. Now the government has been aiming for 50 per cent. Numbers is the answer. You can afford to sub a few but not so many. Yet a degree now is what A-level was in my youth as a relative mark of education.

And a postgraduate degree now is what a first degree was then. So why not charge for undergraduate degrees but make postgraduate degrees free, ie pay the fees from taxes? Anyone who gets a first-class undergraduate degree and finds a place on a postgraduate course should get fees paid by the state. There aren’t so many so it would be affordable. Elitist?

Perhaps. But would you prefer the elite to be British or Chinese? Right now a high-tech Welsh business wanting to recruit a PhD from a Welsh university would have to hire a foreigner (if it could get the visa or work permit). If it wanted to hire a local kid,it would have to settle for a BA.

And solving lack of numeracy? That I can’t answer. Somehow we have to raise the level of ambition and teaching competence in our schools. It looks like being a long job.

Gerald Holtham is an economist, chaired the Welsh Government’s Independent Commission on Funding and and Finance for Wales, and is an IWA trustee. This is a version of a post that appeared his blog at WalesOnline.

One thought on “It’s education stupid

  1. This is the most sensible thing I’ve read in a long time. But sadly the problem of low levels of Welsh/UK PG study is going to get worse not better. PG fees are bound to rise over the next few years as the standard PG taught fee is currently around half that of the new £9k undergraduate fee level because PG study still has a measure of funding council subsidy but when this runs out (which it will within 12/18 months) the PG fee will have to rise exacerbating the problem identified here. Free PG study is a sensible way to grow the nation’s professional skill base and therefore will almost certainly not happen due to the short-sighted cost-cutting and the general shambles of higher education funding on both sides of the border.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy