Zeev Vinokurov: Schools out

Think back to university or high school. Were you or your classmates ever left bored or wondering whether one of your subjects would ever help you get a job? When was the last time most of us wrote an essay on literature or foreign policy, or solved an advanced mathematical equation? You’re not alone: An Australian government survey recently reported that more than ‘a quarter of the nation’s graduates say their degrees are close to useless for their jobs’, while more than ‘half of employers say management and commerce degrees, the most popular field of study, are not important.’ Yet Australian taxpayers spent about $87 billion on education last year, $31 billion of which is spent on university education. Is that money well spent?

Economics Professor Bryan Caplan’s provocative, well-written and sometimes witty book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, argues that taxpayers wastefully sponsor students to study courses that many won’t enjoy, don’t find relevant, don’t learn much from, and don’t remember much of after graduation.

So why do students study boring, irrelevant subjects? Graduating from university is valuable because it signals to employers that students are hard-working, capable, and ‘willing to tolerate serious boredom’ as demonstrated by years of study. Indeed, graduate salaries tend to grow dramatically compared to nongraduates— but mostly after they graduate. That’s called the ‘sheepskin effect’. The sheepskin effect even works for near-failing graduates, who still earn substantially more than students who drop out with one semester left—even though they’re often separated by sheer luck. By graduating, students signal their work ethic.

The problem? Taxpayer sponsored education encourages excessive credentialism. Competent high school graduates benefit from a university degree even if it doesn’t offer a career path, simply because it allows them to further demonstrate their pre-existing work ethic. But those too poor to enrol in university or complete it are effectively left behind when competing with tertiary graduates in the workforce. That’s because employers prefer to hire university graduates over high school graduates, even though both may be equally capable. State-sponsored higher education punishes university graduates by forcing them to engage in years of make-work while also punishing high school graduates who cannot afford university studies.

Moreover, and contrary to popular belief, students don’t gain critical knowledge, reasoning skills, networking, discipline and social skills from studying the humanities. Studies conducted by educational psychologists indicate that most students don’t learn these skills from the humanities, don’t transfer what they’ve learned to the workplace, and soon forget whatever they’ve learned as they don’t practice or use it again. Only a minority of students succeed in applying skills learnt in one setting, like the humanities, to new settings such as the workplace. And networking, discipline and socialising are just as available while working, or while studying subjects actually relevant to a future career.

Caplan argues that excessive credentialism will only end if government funding and involvement in education is removed or at least reduced, for instance, by means testing access to taxpayer funds. Without taxpayer funding, students will no longer study humanities courses just to signal their competence to future employers or lose years to fruitless study that could have been spent in a rewarding career. As the cost of tertiary courses increases if subsidies are removed or means tested, students will turn away from courses that offer fewer marketable benefits. Instead they will start work earlier in their careers or study marketable degrees. High school graduates will also benefit as they won’t compete for work with overcredentialed university graduates.

The book points out that there are mixed findings in economic studies on whether increased education levels contribute to economic growth. Frankly, the economy is so complex that it seems impossible to clearly answer this question one way or the other. While many educated societies are prosperous, at some point the time spent by students outside of the workforce exceeds its benefits. Where that point lies depends on each student and their individual priorities, which statistics cannot reveal and governments cannot know.

The book’s title—The Case Against Education—is slightly misleading. The author believes education is valuable: it’s just that the current system is not effectively preparing students for future employment. The book argues that education should focus on drilling students in key skills like literacy, numeracy and professional writing, as well as vocational subjects and apprenticeships. Most importantly, people become skilled workers through time and experience on the job.

Caplan acknowledges that cultural education and the humanities also have value, but not for every student and not necessarily within the stifling confines of the classroom. Those who hate the humanities shouldn’t be forced to study them. Those who don’t should still be literate and learn how to write business letters (which few schools teach).

Caplan believes the emotional cost of schooling varies, but estimates that studying feels $280 worse per year than working, at least if your potential job pays $20,000.00 or more. The discussion of whether students benefit from increased education includes some guesswork, as the author admits. Still, putting a dollar figure on how much students suffer while studying boring coursework seems too speculative. But that’s a small part of the book.

The book’s arguments draw on research in economics, sociology, and psychology. On its face, at least, the book makes a strong case for reforming the education sector, where Australian taxpayers spend billions of dollars each year.

The Case Against Education makes for interesting reading, not just for educators, economists and policy-makers, but also for anyone curious about why students sit through so many years of often irrelevant coursework.

Vladimir ‘Zeev’ Vinokurov is a Melbourne-based solicitor. This article first appeared in the IPA Review.

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40 Responses to Zeev Vinokurov: Schools out

  1. Sydney Boy

    1. EVERYONE can afford tertiay education in Australia. It’s called HECS/HELP.
    2. If your degree ends in the word ‘studies’ it is probably not worthwhile.

  2. thefrollickingmole

    Reading “skin in the game” (a very good book) and he makes the case for rising educational standards/credentialism as a sign of a wealthy society rather than a driver of a wealthy society.

    An interesting idea.

    Are we better off having uni graduates staffing out councils rather than high school blokes? etc.

  3. Rohan

    Graduating from university is valuable because it signals to employers that students are hard-working, capable, and ‘willing to tolerate serious boredom’ as demonstrated by years of study.

    Unless you have a degree in a field like medicine, science or engineering, where you watched how hard the average arts degree student worked to obtain their qualifictions.

    I remember coming back to halls of residence one day, listening to a bunch of arts students waxing lyrical about the philosophy class where the question was “If you put a cat in a black box, is it really there?” FFS, did you put the cat in the box or not?

  4. .

    Sounds like normies discussing Schrodinger.

  5. It’s funny really when this is discussed. I wanted to learn a trade when finishing high school, but my parents more or less forced me into uni to do engineering. I dropped out after the first years due to too much partying etc and did other things for a year or so and then decided to go back and did something different.

    I graduated with an Applied Science Degree in Photographic Technology and did some years working in that field. But then moved to something else that proved more interesting (logistics – God knows why), but that then led me to project management where I spent the rest of my years before retiring. The last six or so of those years were the best and most interesting in my life and allowed me to combine many of my interests, technical, research and other skills.

    I’ve now come almost 180 degrees about in my retirement and embraced many things that I started doing back in those days. The degree gave me a foot in the door, but the specific one never really featured in anything else that I did, everything followed purely from dint of effort to learn new things and take up new challenges. And I’ve never given up on the trades aspect, forever learning another hands-on skill and often accomplishing things better than those who make a living from the same.

    One thing I certainly agree with is that degrees etc have been grossly devalued with the way everyone is told to get one and with so many having degrees, as noted, there are plenty of capable people missing out on jobs they could do easily and well because they don’t have a degree. I’ve seen this first hand during my project management days. Mike Rowe is a good read (and to watch on video) on the value of education and trade skills.

  6. Anthony

    I’ve argued for a while that the Federal government should fund the (non-HECS/HELP) portion of a degree relative to the graduate employment rates. That is, if people graduate from a BA and the graduate employment rate in a related field within two years is 10%, the government funds 10% of the course. If the employment rate is 90%, the government funds 10%. This system would in theory drive students towards more heavily subsidised courses, and hopefully, less subsidised courses would attract the genuinely interested or risk taking students. Of course, this system could be games, for example, with a highly skilled course like medicine, Universities could constrain student numbers to push up subsidy levels. Though one would hope with 43 Universities, someone would provide competition.

  7. Charles

    I’ve probably trotted this out to many times, but it still rings true; universities today are not much more than expensive childcare centres for young adults and a make-work scheme for public servants.

    There is also a very good (economic) case for home-schooling as well.

  8. Tim Neilson

    The book argues that education should focus on drilling students

    Safe Schools are already onto it.

    in key skills like literacy, numeracy and professional writing

    Oh, sorry.

  9. Fang

    Only fund the student’s, not the places! The Uni’s should (must be!) Run on a commercial basis, and Hec/help is funded directly to the individual student! And the hec/help must be paid back from the first day in your new job! Whether you get $10000 or $1000000

  10. Bruce of Newcastle

    Think back to university or high school. Were you or your classmates ever left bored or wondering whether one of your subjects would ever help you get a job?

    No.
    Here’s what I did:
    Yr 1: Chemistry, physics, maths, computer sci
    Yr 2: Chemistry, physics, statistics
    Yr 3: Chemistry double major
    Yr 4: Chemistry hons

    Then PhD in (wait for it) Chemistry.

    Why chemistry? Well in yr 12 I looked at the job ads. Always there were jobs for chemists. Geo rose and fell. Teaching sucked. But my physics teachers were all chemists or biologists. Therefore if I wanted a job I could do worse than be a chemist.

    Kids: read the job ads.

    Addendum: I love history and archaeology. But as a Year 12 guy forty years ago even I knew there were no jobs in history or archaeology.

    But now, with sizeable stash on the ASX, I read lots of history and archaeology. 😀

  11. Stimpson J. Cat

    Graduating from university is valuable because it signals to employers that students are

    Filthy fluid degenerate dopesmoking hippy Commies.

  12. chrisl

    My daughter had a few stop/starts in getting her uni degree and diploma. She was 29 before she earned enough to pay any hecs. Now at 30 her hecs debt is equal to her superannuation account. Square one.

  13. Pedro the Ignorant

    I have a BSc majoring in metallugy gained back when alchemy was serious subject.

    Helped in the early employment years, but largely irrelevant these days as the career path has wandered along in many different directions.

  14. Angus Black

    No real surprise here.

    Students barely – if at all – manage to transfer learning from one course to another. Ask any academic to put their hand on their heart and swear that they have never said to a student (more likely, an entire class): “now, come on – I know you studied that last semester…because I was the one who taught it to you.”

    I know that I have .., often!

  15. Angus Black

    Bruce of Newcastle: I took the same approach studying Informstion Systems and Software Engineering fir exactly the same reasons (well, also because I was good at these subjects). Accumulated the benefits, having a very satisfactory retirement in consequence … and also reading lots of Hustory and Archaeology.

    “Read the job” ads is, indeed, excellent advice.

  16. Diesal

    Did something similar, dropped out of a sausage factory science degree. Worked in industry as a hand for a couple of years, back to uni and an engineering degree. Been working internationally for most of the last 20 years.

  17. Boambee John

    mole at 1310

    Are we better off having uni graduates staffing out councils rather than high school blokes? etc.

    No. They waste time and money on SJWankers issues of no interest or value to most residents.

  18. Antipodean

    Bruce of Newcastle,

    I too studied Chemistry (hons) because it was the only subject I found vaguely interesting in High School. Later did post graduate studies in commerce and economics, whilst working full-time. Funny thing was that by comparison, the commerce and economics was much easier compared to chemistry, maybe age and guile contributed. From my old chemistry cohort, very few, less than 25%, worked as chemists or continue to do so. Many, including myself, work in fields, where a science degree is useful, but not particularly necessary.

    One thing I have noted, is the poor writing and critical thinking skills coming out of university. Having to train and coach graduates and post- graduates, I’m still surprised by the poor writing skills of some very bright grads. The education system in Australia has really let them down. Don’t get me started on full-fee overseas students that can’t be failed and graduate with barely any English skills at all…

  19. Genghis

    I think back as ‘Progressives’ all want education for every child from the time they walk. they have to be taught by qualified teachers and as Mums are not qualified they are considered not good enough! Then all these teachers need to be paid very well out of the public purse. Then our ABC has reports of African refugees who could not speak English and who had probably not spent any time at school get praise for getrting a University Degree in Australia, in no time flat. It is all an education and socialist con.

  20. Sydney Boy

    Graduated in 1991 with a BSc in computer science (programming) – before MS Windows existed. Later did a MEngSc in technology – consumer GPS was just coming in. Now completing further studies in public health. Each degree was worthwhile and has assisted in my job prospects where I was headed at the time.

  21. H B Bear

    Anthony at 1.48pm That sounds a bit like my approach to HECS funding. It should be tied to the institution and the amount paid back by students of that institution with some sort of an uplift applied. Turn out a bunch of low paid graduates who don’t repay their HECS for 10 years – then expect a big hole in your funding.

    At the moment HECS is an open ended, blank cheque to the universities. In addition to their pay-for-PR population ponzi scheme.

  22. yarpos

    Even back in the 1980s, my then boss said that all a degree showed was that you had persistence and could finish something. The thought been around a long time.

  23. Tim Neilson

    Even back in the 1980s, my then boss said that all a degree showed was that you had persistence and could finish something. The thought been around a long time.

    Or you were happy to put off having to face the real world. Uni isn’t exactly a hardship posting (or wasn’t back in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s).

    Studying law, if you’ve got moderately competent and diligent lecturers in first year, you learn what you need to do to pass the assessments, and after that it’s actually pretty easy to get through.

    Compared with BoN 2.18pm, I’d summarise my Uni years as primarily:
    Yr 1 – Introductory buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 2 – Core buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 3 – Applied buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 4 – Advanced buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women.

  24. Boambee John

    Bruce of Newcastle

    My degree is pure and stat maths.

    But my deep interest is history, particularly military history. Had something of a post-retirement semi career editing books on military history, and writing book reviews.

    There is the job you do, and tge things you enjoy. I was lucky to enjoy my work, then enjoy my hobby.

  25. Rusty of Qld

    Coming from a family of tradies, dad a carpenter older brother a electrician I went for Plumbing.
    Back in the day , some 60 years ago in Victoria us manual workers went to a Tech school and the would be academics went to High School. I completed year 10 with a trades orientation so it counted as my first year for trades school, which helped in gaining an apprenticeship as you had some specific training for the job. I thought it a good system where after primary school you could either stream off to a Tech school for a trades oriented schooling or High school for a University education. It’s always befuddled me why they changed it as in my view it worked bloody well.

  26. Bruce of Newcastle

    Compared with BoN 2.18pm, I’d summarise my Uni years as primarily:
    Yr 1 – Introductory buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 2 – Core buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 3 – Applied buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women;
    Yr 4 – Advanced buffoonery, amateur sport, drunkenness and inept efforts at chasing women.

    Well of course. I was just describing what I also did in my spare time.

  27. Pete of Perth

    Another chemistry major here. Still at the bench 33 years later. Job #6.

  28. Why chemistry? Well in yr 12 I looked at the job ads. Always there were jobs for chemists.

    My Grandfather and one of my Uncles were industrial Chemist, always in demand. They worked at BHP in Newcastle and in Mackay & Sarina at the sugar mills.

  29. Roger

    Zeev,

    ‘Schools’ in the title is a contraction and therefore needs an apostrophe.

    You’re welcome.

    😉

  30. Nob

    a degree showed was that you had persistence and could finish something.

    On the other hand, that’s five or six years of potential work experience lost forever.

    One thing I have noted, is the poor writing and critical thinking skills coming out of university.

    They should have developed these at school. Uni is not the place to learn the 3 Rs.

  31. That sounds a bit like my approach to HECS funding. It should be tied to the institution and the amount paid back by students of that institution with some sort of an uplift applied. Turn out a bunch of low paid graduates who don’t repay their HECS for 10 years – then expect a big hole in your funding.

    At the moment HECS is an open ended, blank cheque to the universities. In addition to their pay-for-PR population ponzi scheme.

    @ H R Bear – that sounds like a good idea. The Unis do need some skin in the game, I’ve suggested they be liable for some of the HECS loan – if students don’t get a job it doesn’t get paid back. The issue for that proposal is that it disadvantages poorer, smaller unis with poorer students likely suffering. Having it delayed like you suggest is probably a better way.

  32. Adelagado

    I think the Public Service drives a lot of this rubbish. You get some wanker running a department, earning well over $100,000 year. His only qualification for demanding this sort of dough (because he doesnt actually do anything useful) is his Uni degree. So naturally he is going to insist that everyone else in the department who wants big money also has to have a Uni degree to do their paper shuffling job. Everyone knows its BS.

  33. It’s always befuddled me why they changed it as in my view it worked bloody well.

    That was another great Labor (from the mouth of Labor) initiative of the 80s, though some insist that it was Jeff Kennett that closed them down.

  34. I am bespoke

    Rusty of Qld

    Such a system would have helped me . I struggled at school and going to three primary and three high schools didn’t help.

  35. Tekweni

    My younger brother did not study further after school. Got a job and then went on his own and retired in his early forties still owning numerous manager run businesses and a large property portfolio. I went to university and have the obligatory qualifications, under and post grad, for a career in the corporate world. I am still working and near retirement where my brother, 18 months younger than me, lives in stunning beach front home and dabbles in hobbies like wine making while still surfing nearly every day. There must be a moral there!

  36. Mark A

    Bruce of Newcastle
    #2818422, posted on September 17, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    Same here, always wanted to be be an astronomer (the stargazer type, not the one spelt differently)
    and my dad said, study engineering and mining, lots of jobs and it will give you the math and physic tools to study astronomy in your spare time.

    Glad I did, I have a few friends in the stargazer fraternity and while they are not complaining they are somewhat disappointed in that none of them achieved the fame they were secretly hoping for.

    For them, it basically turned out to be a fairly routine public service job, no exciting discoveries.

  37. Boambee John

    Adelagado
    #2818606, posted on September 17, 2018 at 7:21 pm
    I think the Public Service drives a lot of this rubbish. You get some wanker running a department, earning well over $100,000 year.

    Well over $100,000 a year? If only. Thr well over $500,000 a year!

  38. Rococo Liberal

    My younger brother did not study further after school. Got a job and then went on his own and retired in his early forties still owning numerous manager run businesses and a large property portfolio. I went to university and have the obligatory qualifications, under and post grad, for a career in the corporate world. I am still working and near retirement where my brother, 18 months younger than me, lives in stunning beach front home and dabbles in hobbies like wine making while still surfing nearly every day. There must be a moral there!

    Yes there is a moral. This fixation we have on ”jobs” is stupid. What we need to teach people is how to make an income.

  39. Then there’s this:

    Students who leave high school with the lowest scores — some close to zero — are being offered places in teaching degrees at universities, a secret report has found.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-18/students-lowest-atar-scores-teaching-degree-offers-secret-report/10200666

  40. .

    Apparently, that doesn’t matter though?!

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