For years, education promised to make us more equal. Finally, politicians are realising it achieved the opposite
Is our long love affair with education coming to an end? In a post-Christmas announcement that went largely unreported, Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, said non-graduates will be able to qualify, through apprenticeships, as lawyers, accountants, and chartered engineers. It marks a rare reversal of a century-old trend: for longer and longer periods of full-time education to be required from anyone aspiring to a professional career (defined in the broadest sense to include occupations such as journalism, publishing and management consultancy that aren’t, strictly speaking, professions). It has been called “the diploma disease” or “the qualification spiral”.
We take it as axiomatic that the longer you stay in school and university, the better you’ll do in life. Sixty years ago you could still enter most professional jobs – in law, management, finance, the civil service, engineering, surveying, nursing, midwifery, and so on – with the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade A* to C, sometimes less. Since then, employers and professional bodies have, by stages, raised the requirements: to one A-level, then two A-levels, then a degree. Now, increasingly, postgraduate study is needed before a young person starts work.
Education is regarded as an unmitigated good, of benefit to society, the economy and the individual. More means better, we think. In many respects, that is true: if we are a more tolerant, more inclusive society than we were 50 years ago, that is largely because most of us are better educated. But we should look more closely at how the demand for ever higher pre-career qualifications has affected professional and managerial competence, the educational experience and, above all, social mobility.
Take, first the demand for higher general qualifications: the batch of GCSEs and A-levels or a degree without which most employers won’t look at a job application. These credentials carry little or no information about knowledge and skills that may be of relevance to a particular career. They are sifting devices, allowing employers to exclude those they perceive as unintelligent or lazy. They create, in students, an instrumental attitude to education. Subjects are studied and examinations taken, not because of enthusiasm for history, chemistry or German literature, but because they are required if the student is to progress.
Moreover, because children from affluent homes do better academically, the requirements stop many from poor homes getting even a foothold in a professional or managerial career. The paths that once took 16 year-old school-leavers from shopfloor to boardroom or from copyboy to newspaper editor are blocked. Journalists and broadcasters born in 1958 typically grew up in families where income was only 5.5% above average, against 42.4% above average for those born in 1970. That is the most dramatic example of a pattern evident across nearly all professions. Look no further than the rise of what Americans call “credentialism” for an explanation. Examination-based credentials – introduced to guarantee that merit, not birth or social connection, determined who got the top jobs – now act as barriers to social mobility. Solutions usually focus on giving disadvantaged children a better shot at acquiring qualifications. Almost nobody considers how the qualifications themselves may be at fault.
As more employers and professions aspired to “graduate entry” status, universities developed degree courses – in business, accountancy, sports management, nursing, journalism, for instance – that purport to cover knowledge and skills directly relevant to careers. They allow students to lop a year or two off the period of full-time education before they actually start earning.
But if such courses are to escape the “Mickey Mouse” category, they must maximise academic content and marginalise mundane practical skills. A “vocational” course’s academic acceptability is in inverse proportion to the extent to which it teaches anything necessary for doing a job. The most quoted example is nursing, the shortcomings of which are highlighted again this week in a report on patient deaths at the Mid-Staffordshire hospital trust. As Ilora Findlay, professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University, has put it, “a nurse can graduate without being able … to apply the scientific basis of illness to real patients or respecting the importance of hands-on care”. Textbooks take priority over bedpans.
We have reached a situation where, for many, full-time education does not end and work begin until their mid-20s. We then accept people as competent doctors, accountants, engineers, and so on, for the next 40 years. Does this make any sense in a fast-changing world? Why do we cram so much education into the first third of the average lifespan, and offer so little of it in the remaining two thirds? Why do we make it difficult for people to attempt a mid-life switch or simply take a break, whether to put right a mistaken career choice or to alleviate boredom? Given our approach to education and training, is it surprising that so many institutions – from banks to hospitals – seem beset by disasters, exposing incompetence at all levels?
Some careers, such as medicine, may always require long periods of initial training. But in most, we may get higher levels of professional competence and job satisfaction – alongside increased social mobility and an even better educated society – if we swapped a few years of initial full-time education for more apprentice-style training, and followed that with short periods of full-time education at seven-yearly intervals throughout life. Hancock’s announcement is only a tiny step in that direction, but a welcome one nonetheless.