Why education should be elite

We get told how everyone should strive for education, we should educate ourselves, and how going to university is going to change our lives.

Well, yes.. Sort of. Often in unexpected ways (see Karen Owen for most recent example).

There are two points to educations, and they are diametrically different – and should be dealt with differently. Unfortunately, I haven’t met anyone who was able to recognize it yet, so here’s An Unreasonable Response to Education Proposal.

In the first place, education is about knowing more “stuff” that is genuinely useful in one’s life. Reading, writing, ability to do base maths (yes, that includes percents!). Everyone (ok, maybe only 99%) can handle these, and should be taught them. On top of that, there is a bunch of socially or generally useful things – prose, poetry and history to understand our society better, and basic physics, chemistry and biology to understand our world.

And that’s it. Afterwards, build a lot of large libraries with great doors and let them be open 24/7 (although the cynical me says that you could probably do a single normal sized door with opening once a week, unless they stock stuff like DaVinci Code). Let’s call this part schooling, so we can separate the two principles.

Then, there’s the second one – where we get “higher education”. That is notionally required to prepare us for that hard job, give us skills that we will use in making our million or two (just wait for that inflation, it will be there in your lifetime) etc. etc.

We go to university and do our degrees to get it. Then we can happily describe ourselves as MA, MSc, MBA or whatever.

Unreasonable Response to this is that very few of the skills we learn there are actually applicable in real life. Even with professions like doctors, where you would think they do learn real skills, they get taught a lot they never have to use again, and probably the only patients MDs fresh out of medical schools get to see unsupervised, are dead who can’t complain and file medical malpractice suits (or possibly family, especially if we really need that inheritance to pay for the education bill).

Does it mean the time (and money) is wasted? No, there are real benefits – and not only the fringe benefits of university life. Namely, one incurred a non-trivial costs, both in time and money to achieve something. Yes yes, you already said that, but to what use? Simple – to put on your CV.

When you put this on your CV – especially if it’s the only thing you can put there – it shows to your potential employer that you can commit for an extended period of time, that you can learn, and do it all rather rigorously (even if the result is usually irrelevant and not of much use. On the second thought, it could be a plus with majority of the current employers).

In other words, in game theory terms you are CREDIBLY SIGNALING these skills to your potential employers. I say CREDIBLY, because it’s one thing to write on CV “I’m diligent, determined quick learner”, and other to actually show so – and at a cost to oneself.

Of course, in the employment market this signal means money. You’re showing that you really are better than other candidates who can only write that they are good – and so employer should pay you more (you’re less likely to be fired for not having these skills, thus less likely incur sunk costs, and they can share part of that with you).

That in turn means that people who are not committed, rigorous etc. etc. should be willing to pay up to the difference between your salary and a salary they would get with a signal-less CV. And Lo!, student loans were created, so everyone could get the signal on their CV. And on the second day, schools raised their fees, reasoning that when students have more money via loans, they can pay more. Oh, and also we don’t want to fail them now, since it would harm our stream of income. And on the third day, someone thought why schools – all that matters is the bit of paper and I can sell that on eBay? And it went downhill from there.

Or, in other words, the signal can get polluted. But when the signal gets strongly polluted, the employers will, quite reasonably, start ignoring it and we end up with a population of no more employable people with degrees. Worse yet, the dilution will mean that even people who do have the skills that the degree should signal will lose, and thus they will lose any reason to get a title in the first place.

What this means is that the push for more people getting university education as a gateway to better jobs is self-defeating. The evidence is out there for all who want to see it – the more people have certain degree, the less attention it gets from employers (unless it’s a negative signal, that if you can’t bother to do even easy and cheap title, you’re probably no good in the first place). At best, certain institutions may still be counted as having some signaling power, but even that goes down – because they want their income stream, so they don’t fail students as they should.

So what can we do? Well, I’m not in business of suggesting reasonable responses, so here is an Unreasonable one:

REQUIRE universities to have ability-based entry tests – and restrict them to be able to take on only people who pass the tests.Restrict them in how many students they can take on even with these tests (for example, they can take at most only top 10%, but also with some minimal absolute score). The tests of course should be something that assumes only knowledge normally achievable in schooling part available to all – but should build on skills like problem solving, analytical thinking, ability to formulate ideas etc. Ideally, they should be run by an external organization incentivised on a) how hard the tests are b) that you don’t need special schooling to pass them.

ALLOW anyone to take this test. ANONYMISE the results for selection purposes. SUBSIDIZE anyone who gets accepted but cannot afford it.

Make all examinations and marking EXTERNAL to the university – turn every exam into Cambridge/Oxford boat race.

If there are genuine skills that most of the population could profit from having, move them to the SCHOOLING part.

In other words, make the education elite again. But strongly meritocratically elite.

I’m pretty sure that alumni of this system will be much more employable than of the current one – and that goes even for the infamous liberal art types.

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