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Three problems: Important omissions from David Goodhart’s assault on universities (life expectancy, student choice and degree content)

  • 23 October 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to interesting new books on education policy at the moment, which is why HEPI’s blog has been running more book reviews than normal.

One of the most thought-provoking is the new book by David Goodhart, the old Etonian son of one of Margaret Thatcher’s Ministers. He recounts in Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century how he has journeyed from the far left, via the centre left, to the political centre – though he now works for a centre-right think tank and some of his views find support on the traditional right. We have already run one review of his new book, but it is so wide-ranging that there is plenty more to be said so are running this unprecedented second piece.

Goodhart is not the first person to have made a long living using their brain and writing skills only to discover later in life a profound and romantic respect for working with your hands. Judging by his references, he has been heavily influenced by the last book to make waves on a similar theme, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft from 2009 (published in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good).

There is much useful material in Goodhart’s book. The early section provides a useful summary on the history of measuring intelligence, on the latest evidence about the balance between innate ability and one’s environment (boringly, as many parents have long suspected, it’s around 50% nature and 50% nurture) and on the extra weight applied to cognitive ability in ‘meritocratic’ societies (like the UK and the US).

I also felt drawn to the overall argument about how the education system and wider society exalt one form of activity (head) over others (hand and heart) to an excessive degree. It reminded me of my teachers’ complaint that my GCSE options included Latin but also Craft, Design and Technology. You were meant to go down one track or the other; the fact I was the only pupil in the school to choose both options rather confirms Goodhart’s point that we have driven a wedge between different types of learning. (Today, I use the scant facts I remember from each of those two subjects to roughly the same degree. My foreign language skills are as poor as my DIY.)

So this is a good book and well worth reading. Yet I don’t agree with it. Much of the book is an attack on the expansion of higher education, and specifically universities, as if this must naturally and inevitably flow from Goodhart’s prior analysis. I doubt that is so. The book is a polemic about the importance of balance that, like all powerful polemics, is not very balanced. In particular, there are three omissions: longevity; choice; and curricula.

1. Longevity

Goodhart and many other people argue that students who opt for traditional three-year degrees spend too long being educated and they want to see more people doing shorter courses.

Yet as is regrettably normal for books on education policy, Goodhart ignores changing life expectancy almost entirely. By my count, there is somewhere between one and three sentences on it, depending on what you include, or – at most – one in every hundred pages.

Yet in my view, rising life expectancy is the single most important thing to consider when understanding how long someone might reasonably stay in formal education.

When the school leaving age was moved to 12 in 1899, contemporary life expectancy was in the late 40s, so someone could expect to spend around 26% of average life expectancy being educated through their early years and in school. When the school leaving age was increased to 14 after the First World War, when life expectancy rose to nearly 50, the proportion of average life expectancy spent before leaving compulsory education grew to 29%.

Someone who goes to university for a three-year degree now (and remember only around half of young people receive any higher education) will pass 26% of today’s life expectancy before leaving education. That is the same proportion expected from everyone when Queen Victoria was on the throne, back when the economy was ten times smaller. It is also a lower proportion than we expected back in the 1920s.

Indeed, anyone who has just completed a three-year PhD on top of a three-year Bachelor’s degree will only just have surpassed the time all people were expected to stay in education 99 years ago.

Indeed, anyone who has just completed a three-year PhD on top of a three-year Bachelor’s degree will only just have surpassed the proportion of life all people were expected to spend before leaving education 99 years ago.

As life expectancy has grown, we have spent more hours and, I suspect, a higher proportion of our lives shopping, going on holiday and on other leisure and consumption activities. Yet we have been spending a lower proportion of our lives in education. Now, some people want to see the figure pushed even lower through people taking fewer three, four and five-year degrees and more shorter courses.

It is not only because I work in education and believe education is generally a force for good or that employers need highly-skilled employees that I think this is odd; it is also because I believe education should be enjoyable and that the time we spend in education should grow at least in line with other activities. Why is it that people have come to regard what seemed natural to our forebears – more education – as elitist rather than progressive?

2. Choice

Goodhart is not alone in seeing problems in Tony Blair’s target of ensuring half of all young people experience some higher education. One specific problem he identifies is that Blair gave ‘little thought to the psychological impact on those not going to college’. In many ways, Goodhart’s book is a paean to the past, when blue-collar jobs were better respected and more women stayed at home rather than went out to work.

However, while so-called ‘academic’ higher education is often much more technical in nature than Goodhart allows for, it is not obviously clear that young people are wrong to avoid more ‘vocational’ options. Goodhart presents evidence showing graduates are more likely to ‘love’ their jobs and that skilled tradespeople have fallen behind others, for example in terms of pay increases, in recent years. But he is nonetheless certain that, in relation to practical skills, ‘the next few years are likely to see a sharp uplift in pay in many of these skilled trades’.

Even if the future is to be so different from the recent past, it is not clear how people can be persuaded to live their lives the way Goodhart thinks they should. He bemoans the decline of technical education in schools but exaggerates the popularity of technical education among parents and students beforehand: Peter Mandler’s new history of post-war education reminds us that technical schools ‘seemed second-rate next to grammar schools, they offered no obvious advantage in the labour market, and allocation to them seemed like just another means test to separate the privileged from the not.’ More recently, some University Technical Colleges (UTCs) have struggled: the latest research suggests those who enter UTCs at age 14 are much less likely to get five or more good GCSE grades than comparable students elsewhere.

The other point made very powerfully by Peter Mandler is that the old polytechnics were not what the bring-back-the-polytechnics brigade think they were: ‘What differences there were [between polytechnics and universities] arose not because of their closer links to employers but because of their greater openness to new [higher education] entrants, whose interests and abilities differed from those of traditional entrants.’ Similarly, despite his backing of the US community colleges, Goodhart has to recognise that student choice has meant they have faced ‘a drift away from more technical and vocational courses.’

It is doubtless true, as the general consensus suggests, that non-degree routes have had insufficient attention in recent years and that, as more people attend higher education, others can feel less secure. If a country is to shift from an elite to a mass to a universal system of higher education, there are bound to be jolts along the way.

Goodhart calls this the 15/50 problem because, when only 15% of your peers go to university there is no ‘left behind’ problem but when 50% do, there is. That may be true. Yet it is still a huge jump to assume the country should therefore have sent people down routes they did not favour and stuck forever on a low higher education participation rate, while other countries surged ahead. Besides, HEPI’s latest report, published yesterday and written by Rachel Hewitt, suggests we could soon be far above 50% (as many individual parts of the country already are).

3. Curricula

Like other wonks keen to do down elements of our higher education sector, Goodhart rarely delves in to exactly what the courses he dislikes actually cover. His criticisms of UK universities are partly based on personal anecdotes from acquaintances on how higher education does not work out for everyone. Yet evidence is not the plural of anecdote. His criticisms are also partly based on one-dimensional graduate earnings figures, yet (as Goodhart himself admits at the end), ‘Our conversations about education, including in this book, are far too economy-orientated’.

If I had ever wanted to push Goodhart’s thesis that many higher education options are unsound (which I don’t), I would have taken a different tack. For me, fairly or not, Michael Gove’s old attacks on school standards started having real impact when he targeted what he saw as egregious examples of untesting courses. In one speech, for example, Gove attacked Science GCSEs for asking about battered sausages, Languages A-Levels for not compelling students to read texts in their original language and English Literature at both GCSE and A-Level for focussing too much on contemporary authors.

Whether Gove had a valid point is not the issue; his accusations were crunchy enough to allow for a proper two-way conversation. But in higher education, the critics tend to level their criticisms in such a generalised way that a negative impression is created without providing specific complaints open to discussion or rebuttal. Let us have a conversation about courses instead. And by courses, I don’t mean made-up ones, like Sajid Javid’s recent claim about people studying ‘agriculture with pop music’ (yes, I searched the UCAS course list to check and it does not exist), nor do I mean taking the Mickey out of courses for their name rather than their actual content, workload and learning outcomes.

Conclusion 

Goodhart’s book is key to understanding current debates on the value of higher education, although the case against is not as cut-and-dried as Goodhart makes out.

One other point in the book is bugging me. On the one hand, Goodhart argues that graduates often don’t learn much that is useful and he questions the cost-to-benefit ratio of earning a degree. On the other hand, he notes that graduates who end up in non-graduate jobs (or jobs that were not deemed to be graduate level until relatively recently) can be frustrated and are not always very good at their jobs, which they may regard as beneath them. Goodhart’s answer to this conundrum is to reduce the proportion of people who become graduates in the first place and to stop labelling some professions as being graduate level.

Yet were he to be right that some degrees do not teach you very much and that graduates should not be fulfilling these sorts of jobs, how would the world be a better place if the same people were to go straight in to these roles rather than reaching them via university? Goodhart argues that it would be better if fewer graduates had become teaching assistants with the role being undertaken by more ‘conscientious school leavers’ instead. But I wonder how many parents would agree.

Surely a better solution would be to ensure people do improve themselves while at university and then ensure their subsequent roles make the most of their aptitudes? If someone is a Languages graduate, say, who has ended up in a routine role where no language skills are necessary, why not alter the role so that more use can be made of their skills, perhaps in helping to build an export market for whatever their company does? If a graduate teaching assistant has skills that remain undeployed, why not see if more use can be made of them to the benefit of both the school and the individual? We could then prove the truth in the old saying that a graduate job can be any job a graduate does.

In the end, Goodhart seems over-confident about his fortune-telling skills, for example in relation to the future of the labour market, for we live in a fluid world.

Postscript: Some people have taken me to task on social media for the definition of life expectancy that I have used. In essence, their complaint is that because many more people used to die as infants, life expectancy for people who lived long enough to reach education was higher than suggested by the numbers above. That is true (there are lots of ways to measure longevity and none is perfect for my purposes here – indeed, there are other reasons too why people might not like the data I have chosen). However, average life expectancy measures with infant deaths removed still show significant increases over time (there’s a useful summary from the Office for National Statistics here), and my substantive point that education books typically ignore this holds. I would encourage anyone who has a problem with the data I have used to recrunch the numbers with their preferred dataset and to post the results below as a way of stimulating informed debate.

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