In every respect bar one, those bloody Corbyn-supporting students have a much tougher time of it than I did, what with my full grant and my tuition fees paid. But by God, learning stuff is easy nowadays. The young of today just cannot conceive what a chore it was to eke out enough material for an essay in 1984. To find out anything took hours of mostly wasted effort in a library. If you imagine a world where every page of Wikipedia took half an hour to load, it should give you some idea of what it took to educate yourself back then. That’s why we were all drunk and on drugs: we needed to recover from a tiring week finding out the significant dates of the Delian Confederacy.
So why, pray, do university courses still last three years? Can people not learn any faster now? In his forthcoming book, The Case Against Education, economist Bryan Caplan argues that most education does not really add human capital or skills commensurate with its time or cost. It is instead a signalling mechanism where prospective employees must jump through hoops to advertise their innate intelligence and self–discipline to employers. Yes, graduates may make good employees, but they would have made good employees anyway without the three years and spiralling debt required to prove it.
I think Caplan’s half right. Most people end up in jobs which have no connection to their degree course. And it’s telling that some canny Americans now game the system by approaching Silicon Valley firms armed only with a letter offering them a place at an Ivy League university. They realise that getting admitted to, say, Princeton is almost as valuable a signal to an employer as graduating from there — and, unlike a degree certificate, the admission letter doesn’t cost $150,000.
I would also argue that academic ability, like chess-playing ability, is a one-way signal of intelligence. If you are good at passing exams or playing chess, you are probably intelligent, but the reverse does not apply: it is not fair to infer that someone who cannot play chess, or who flunks exams, is stupid. This makes higher education a wasteful form of talent-finding.
But let’s cut to the chase. Is it possible that the expansion of Britain’s educational industrial complex has been a disaster? Though designed to widen opportunity, it may have achieved the opposite. First of all, by creating an academic apartheid where the career prospects of the 50 per cent without degrees are unfairly curtailed. Secondly by creating more expectation than there are good jobs. And thirdly by creating a system so large that it can only be funded by placing millions in debt. Debt by definition reduces opportunity. It forces graduates to work in those few places and sectors which pay enough to make their sacrifice worthwhile. The resulting hyper-competition transforms universities from healthy places of enquiry into CV-factories. I don’t mind someone leaving Oxford to work in a bank; I do resent someone going to Oxford in order to work in a bank.
So here’s my Corbynite compromise. We should pay people’s fees and living costs for one year, thus forcing universities to offer one-year courses. Ninety per cent of the social, sexual, pharmacological, geographical and educational value of university is probably delivered in year one. After that, the buggers can pay.
I lecture on a lot of one-year courses. They seem excellent. Would these people be three times more employable after three years? Not a bit. I’d prefer they were learning on the job.
This approach may not work for brain surgery. But for 95 per cent of jobs, if you can’t learn to bluff it in a year, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.