Imagine a world where employers judged applicants solely on their dress. Anyone in frayed clothes or scuffed shoes would never get a job. This would be unfair to poorer applicants so, in the name of equality, the government might offer favourable loans up to £1,000 to buy interview clothing. At first glance this would seem a wonderful way to promote fairness.
Yet if the number of jobs remained constant, such a policy would have the opposite effect: it would merely ratchet up the level of wasteful, zero-sum competition for what limited chances exist. Soon, anyone not sporting Savile Row tailoring and handmade shoes would be written off. Rather than widening opportunity, it would raise the bar to existing opportunities still higher.
This bizarre-seeming situation is akin to what happened with the expansion of higher education. A policy which helps more people to compete for jobs only works if there is a corresponding increase in suitable jobs on offer. Otherwise it just creates more failures. Think of help-to-buy schemes for houses: these also sound wonderful in theory; in practice they are counterproductive unless someone builds some bloody houses.
Both student loans and help-to-buy schemes are classic examples of ‘bottleneck’ problems, as identified by Clarke Ching in a series of wonderful short books, and also by the legal academic Joseph Fishkin in a commentary on social policy. Fishkin argues that a great deal of effort to reduce inequality is wasted because it merely provides people with more means to compete for the same limited things. Just as there is no point widening the M25 between junctions 8 and 9 if there’s always a traffic jam at junction 10, there is little value in giving every British child the ‘opportunity’ to study biology when the BMA artificially limits the number of medical school places to 5,000 annually.
Degrees are becoming a bottleneck because employers increasingly expect them for entry-level jobs. When only ten to 20 per cent of people went to university, there was no particular stigma to not going — and people could plausibly pretend that they couldn’t afford it. Boosting university attendance to 50 per cent and offering loans has created creeping credentialism and hence new bottlenecks. Nursing, for instance, was never historically a job which required a degree. It does now. It’s all a bit daft because, four years into most jobs, nobody gives a damn what degree you have anyway.
As with the 11-plus exam, seemingly meritocratic attempts to create ‘fairness’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ often have the unintended effect of creating ‘synchronicity of opportunity’. In other words, they create a few artificially decisive points in life where you can’t afford to fail. When everyone must compete for the same thing at the same time, there’s a bottle-neck, and each one brings a net loss of opportunity. This is why Fishkin advocates not for ‘equality of opportunity’, which is never attainable, but for ‘plurality of opportunity’, which is.
As in traffic planning, you can eradicate a bottleneck by reducing traffic, smoothing traffic flow, widening the road or building a bypass. My own idea to solve the problem of creeping demand for degrees is simple. Universities must reserve 25 per cent of places for people over 26, thus creating a bypass. It would then be perfectly normal to explain to an employer that you wish to go to university later on, when you have decided what to study. Besides, it would hardly harm universities to welcome a few people whose experience of life extends beyond sitting around debating which toilets people can use.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairmanof Ogilvy UK.