Friday, 23 July 2010

What benefit from the trebling of university graduates in one generation?

Nobody learns from the history public policy (because public policy is not about making things better – ‘reform’ is merely the excuse).

In the UK we are about to embark on yet another 'reform' (reorganization) of the National Health Service - yet we know it is un-reformable, because reform has been tried repeatedly, and only succeeds in making health services ever more managerially- and politically- dominated. 

(Which is, of course, the real purpose.)  


But I am talking about education here. 

Nobody seems to have noticed that the UK did a *huge* experiment in determining the value of university education when it roughly trebled the proportion of 18 year olds going into degree programs over a period of about 20 years. 

The proportion of college graduates went up from about 15 percent to about 45 percent over less than twenty years. 

Such a massive, seismic change in public policy must surely have produced a vast societal transformation of some kind. 

But it didn't. 


Indeed, except for those who paid for it (parents) nobody has really noticed any difference in the economy, in soceity - except we have subtracted hundreds of thousands more of the most intelligent and highly-motivated young people from the job market for an extra three years, and each of the full time undergraduates has been subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of 4-5K pounds stirling - both of which *must* have caused economic damage. 

So, what about all this relentless propaganda about the economic need for a more highly-educated workforce etc? 

Complete and utter bollix, I am afraid. 

(And I fell for this nonsense, hook line and sinker - - until I eventually came to my senses by learning about IQ and personality differences - . I should have taken more notice of Alison Wolf -


Here are the numbers - for an historical perspective:

In round numbers, there were about 5 percent of the population doing degrees at a UK university in 1950 (there was a higher proportion in Scotland than England) - this approximately trebled in the post-Robbins era up to around 15 percent in the mid 1970s (but I am not sure what proportion were in universities, and what proportion were doing degrees in polytechnics). And from the mid-1970s until now there was a more than three fold increase in the percentage of the population going into in higher education degree programs (with the polytechnics having been renamed as universities, and with many institutions having more than doubled in size of intake). So there was roughly an order of magnitude (5-50 percent) growth in the proportion of the age cohort doing degrees over the sixty year period from 1950-2009.

Numbers mostly from Robert Anderson – British Universities past and present).

I don't know what proportion of these totals would graduate in one year. I guess probably less than a third, because of drop-outs and failures and courses lasting more than three years – so, maybe a quarter of these numbers quoted below would represent annual graduation rates? That's what I will assume.

1861 = 3, 385 English University Students (at this time Scotland had more university students than England) - i.e. under 1000 graduates per year.

1910-11 = 19, 617 EUSs (Scotland and Wales had 6736 and 1375)  - about 5000 graduates per year

1920s = c 48, 000 in Britain – maybe three quarters of them in England? – c 12, 000 graduates per year

1930s = c 50, 000 in Britain - maybe three quarters of them in England?  Still about 12,000 grads per year.

1949 = 85, 000 in Britain - maybe three quarters of them in England? Up to about 21, 000 graduates per year.

1962 – 118, 000 – if three quarters of them in England – then this is about 22, 125 graduates per year. Not much change.

1980 - 282, 960 UK students, correcting with a multiple of 0.75 for England (if about a quarter of the students were in Scotland, Wales and Ulster) the number of English graduates would be about 50, 000 graduates per year – a doubling.

2007/8 – c 2, 400, 000 college students in UK (ref  1 at
 – say 1, 600, 000 in England, say 400, 000 (roughly half a million) English graduates per year...

Huge increase in annual graduates from 1980 - eightfold? 

(I don't really believe this eightfold size of increase in the number of graduates!  As the proportion of the population in college has increased, so has the drop-out rate, and the rate of repeating years of study - probably the proportion of the total number of students that graduate each year has fallen considerably.)

But even if the numbers of graduates are considerably less than this estimate – even if it was half of this - the expansion in the output of graduates from 1980 to 2007 was utterly ginormous.

 So - where are the benefits commensurate with this vast expansion in graduates (relatively and in absolute numbers)….? 

The benefits should be pretty obvious, surely?