How Much Education Is Good?

A common demand of Greens and Leftists* in many conutries is that access to higher education should be eased so that wider parts of the population could enjoy it. Indeed, within inter-country comparisons of the quality of education systems, the share of young people enjoying higher education is seen as a positive variable (indicating, e.g., that the Polish educational system is, at least in one respect, better than its German counterpart). But is this a sensible view of education? Could it be that there is some optimal level of education (from the point of view of the society)? If yes: how much education is good?

In 1976 the economist Fred Hirsch considered this issue, among others, in his book on Social Limits to Growth. He argued that widening the access to higher education (as already was the case in his time) has important downsides. When we view higher education as a screening device making the working of the labour market easier, the lowering of barriers of access to undergraduate and, as increasingly the case in Germany, graduate studies as well can all but lead to a deterioration in its function as a screening device. This means that job seekers are increasingly being confronted with other kinds of screening (e.g., in-depth job interviews or compulsory internships). These are a clear cost for employers, and may well result in higher costs for the students, too, since those who are better and want jobs that are more difficult to get are forced to prolong their education (“obstacle course” in Hirsch’s wording) and fight their way through additional layers of screening. Meanwhile, those who are not as good woll have to accept less prestigious, lower paid jobs even though they studied much longer than necessary for them. Important here, as well, is the tendency in Europe and Northern America for higher education to become increasingly expensive in monetary terms.

It is often claimed that access to education is a human right. This is true, but the interpretation is, nevertheless, wrong. While I would argue that everybody should enjoy primary as well as secondary education, higher, specialized education is neither necessary for all, nor sensible for all (as discussed above). While everyone should have access to higher education given she fulfills certain conditions, this does not imply that everybody should actually have a Bachelor’s degree. For society as a whole this is not good at all. Additional to the already mentioned costs borne by employers and students there is the problem that society may end up having too many MBAs, engineers, philosophers and nuclear physicists, and too few gardeners, cooks and clerks. Here the problem of Greens and Leftists* also seems to be that, progressive as they believe themselves to be, they have a raher conservative picture of education, implicitly valuing higher education higher/better than other kinds of it. However, as a society we equally need MBAs and cooks (and are likely better off having more clerks than philosophers).

Of course, less (but better) higher education can only function when there is an alternative available – such as the so-called dual education system in Germany (combining school with internship). In Poland, for instance, there is no such alternative – no wonder that most young people want to study. Just increasing barriers at universities and colleges is not enough.

Instead of viewing higher education as an end in itself, we should consider its various aspects – from the point of view of individuals as well as their employers and the wider society. I believe that if we do that, there is a clear argument against opening universities and colleges to all.

* – I appologise for pigeon-holing. Since I see myself as a Green, I think that I can credibly make the claim that there are some Greens and Leftists who have a different view of the issues discussed here, but my criticism is aimed at the majority view.

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