Does Education Matter (2002) by Alison Woolf is a book that looks at how much education, and in particular tertiary education matters to economic growth. Woolf looks thoroughly at the question of whether more tertiary education will lead to more economic growth.
The book briefly looks at all education and looks at the changes in enrolment in different levels of education since 1970 globally. All levels have substantially increased but the really spectacular growth has been in tertiary education that has increased three-fold. Looking further back to the 1950s in most of the developed world only about 5-10% of the population went on to University education where as amongst the youngest generation today the figure is over 30%.
Woolf points out that good ‘fundamentals’, that is the ability to read, write, do math and reason are what is most wanted by employers but that is what is taught at high schools rather than in Tertiary Education.
The book concentrates on the UK and goes over the attempted creation of good non-University education that was more practical under the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s. The reforms were started in order to improve the UK’s manufacturing sector and Germany was chosen as a model with its highly regulated and comprehensive apprenticeship and accreditation system. Woolf points out that the systems of other manufacturing powers, those of Japan and the US were ignored because they were similar to the UK system. The reforms failed dismally, Civil Servants failed to created certification that was perceived to be of value by either employers or students.
Woolf then looks at Universities and how a degree has become a requirement for many jobs not because of the content of the course but instead because a degree is used as a screening tool to separate people. The problem with this approach is that all that it has led to is an arms race where a higher and higher proportion of the population gets a degree that is worth less and less. Woolf doesn’t attempt to come up with some solution to this problem but merely states that it is in fact occurring.
Her advice is that instead of trying to increase tertiary participation rates that are of dubious value that instead governments try to concentrate on the harder task of improving the quality rather than the quantity of education. She suggests that the increase in student numbers may have even decreased the quality of education somewhat.
The book is centered on the UK but has implications for any country. Woolf at the least provides food for thought for the continual pushing of more education. The book is a powerful counter to the ‘education leads to growth’ argument on the margins of the modern education system.
Oooh, this is the 200th review. Sheesh.