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Hub Dialogue: David Goodhart on why university education is not the only education that matters

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with British journalist, writer, and policy thinker, David Goodhart. Goodhart’s 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere, is one of the most important books of the past decade because of its rich and textured contribution to our understanding of the cultural, economic, and social conditions that have contributed to the rise of political populism in various countries. 

Continuing on some of these themes, he has a brilliant new book out now, Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. It unpacks the broad-based consequences of what he calls “peak head”—the idea that an overemphasis on university pathways and credentialization has led to an unhealthy social dynamic in which people are wrongly valued according to narrow cognitive traits. As he puts it in the book: “Can we really argue that the work of a junior account manager in a City PR firm is more useful than a bus driver or an adult care worker?”

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

Thank you for joining us, David.

David Goodhart

It’s my pleasure. 

Sean Speer 

Your book focuses on the educational system’s bias in favour of university training, advanced degrees, and credentialization. Those trends are occurring against the backdrop of the decline of the goods-producing part of the economy and the rise of a new, service-based economy, which seems to pay larger returns to education credentials and cognitive skills, and in turn is producing job polarization with an increasing concentration of jobs at the top and the bottom of the skills distribution. 

What’s the direction of causality here? Are the educational trends you describe in the book a reflection of these broader economic trends? Or are these economic trends actually being driven by what you describe occurring in the education system?

David Goodhart 

It’s an interesting question. I think like many things, it’s a bit of both. I think the initial impetus probably comes from the economy, but it then becomes self-perpetuating as a feedback loop between the economy and the choices people make. 

If I may, let me provide a bit more context about the book and its main idea. I’m skeptical about the benefits of the dramatic increase in higher education in the United Kingdom. This doesn’t necessarily apply so much to Canada, but in the UK there’s been a huge increase in a very narrow form of higher education which has led to a sort of massification of elite higher education. We have a system that tilts in favour of full time, academic-focused, three-year programs for mainly eighteen and nineteen-year-olds, and it’s overwhelmingly residential, meaning people leave home and often their home town to go to college. We’re global outliers in that respect, and that’s been particularly politically and socially divisive in the UK. 

Now, I’m not arguing that the trends towards a knowledge economy didn’t require an increase in academic-type knowledge. That economic trend produced a real demand for more academic-type knowledge in lots of different sectors. There was, of course, as one example, a huge increase in demand for professional people associated with medicine due to the expansion of health and welfare systems. Much of this demand was actually in the public sector. 

And much of that expansion was no doubt necessary and desirable. But it then overshot, and we’re now on something like autopilot. 

Politicians and obviously people in universities have a vested interest in the continued expansion of a certain kind of higher education, but it seems pretty clear to me that we’ve reached what I call “peak head.” It’s gone too far. 

You can see the diminishing returns setting in very dramatically in certain parts of higher education. In the UK, for instance, about a third of graduates are not in graduate employment five to 10 years after graduating. The graduate income premium has also declined very sharply. And this has created a crisis of disappointed expectations. People have been led to believe that there is one route into safety and success in our society. They’re now discovering that’s not quite right.

That is my other objection in my book. Of course, we need a cognitive class: we need highly, cognitively trained people. But outside of a relatively small number of people, most of us in the cognitive class are not really producing significant new knowledge. Other aptitudes and forms of intelligence are also vital to the successful functioning of any society, and we have tended to go too far in allocating status and reward just to one cluster, that associated with cognitive-analytical intelligence. 

I think we are seeing a readjustment. There’s an awful lot of disillusionment with higher education, especially for those not going to the most elite institutions. And, meanwhile, we have a crisis in the recruitment and training of people destined for the so-called “missing middle” of skilled manual and technical positions and in the public care economy, especially in adult social care.  

Sean Speer 

You observe in the book that these educational trends are a reflection of an institutional and policy orientation which now essentially operates on autopilot. How much of it is explained by the implicit growth assumptions of educational institutions embedded in their budgets, pensions, capital, and other spending that student populations must grow in spite of demographic trends moving in the opposite direction? How much of the solution, in other words, lies in the need to confront the inherent growth bias of educational institutions?

David Goodhart 

I suppose there is an inherent growth bias, and there’s also a naive assumption that the professional managerial class will go on growing and growing. It probably is growing in most countries but at a much slower rate than was the case going back 25 years. In that period, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was clearly a huge demand for more cognitively trained professional people.

But if you look at the share of adult employees in the top two social classes—professional and managerial class higher and lower—it has essentially remained unchanged for 20 years. It was about 35 percent in 2000 and it’s just below 37 percent now. 

That’s contributed to this notion of the overproduction of a cognitive class. I think it does have political and economic consequences. In Robert Gordon’s work on productivity, for instance, he makes the point that the expansion of research universities in the last 25 years or so has coincided with the great productivity slowdown. 

It’s quite hard to trace, but it seems to me, there is some connection between the productivity problem and the growth of degree credentialism. The elaborate hierarchy related to the much greater protection for professional roles compared to ordinary roles in the economy is surely a factor. If everyone is told that the road to safety and success for their children is a degree then you are likely to over-produce a graduate professional class. Hence, there’s a tendency to support professional protectionism in one way or another, which creates a kind of bureaucratisation so brilliantly described in C. Northcote Parkinson’s famous laws.  

In any case, I do think that people make extraordinary claims for the economic benefits of having more graduates, and I think the data simply doesn’t show that. It may have been broadly positive 20 to 30 years ago, but I’ve not seen anything convincing that shows that sending more and more kids to university has been good for economic growth or productivity in the past generation, leaving aside the idea of whether we should be concerned about economic growth itself.

Sean Speer 

One of the most perverse aspects of the overemphasis on higher education is that while at some level it’s informed by egalitarian impulses, the net effect can be to ultimately create a two-tier system between those who pursue a post-secondary pathway and those who don’t. 

You observe in the book, for instance, that if you graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary studies, the government is there waiting for you with grants scholarships, tax credits, and so on. If, however, you don’t choose that pathway and go straight into the labour market, you have virtually no supports until you fail in which case you may get picked up on welfare rolls or some other relief program. 

How can we re-balance the mix of public policies so that we better support people who choose to go to higher education or straight into the workforce?

David Goodhart 

I think that the government in the UK has acknowledged this problem. We now have almost half of students going into classical higher education, which, of course, is enormously differentiated. There is the sort of myth that all degrees are equal. That is obviously nonsense. You can see that in the returns to degrees from elite universities which on average remain pretty high, and they’ve dropped to almost nothing from the more run of the mill universities. 

A number of factors—including the political demographics of Brexit and the fact the ruling Tory party has found itself to be the voice of the bottom fifty per cent—have had significant effects on the politics of these issues. As a result of the Brexit vote, for instance, the British Conservatives are now certainly representing many more people from ordinary and working-class backgrounds. The Tory party has therefore done the pragmatic thing and moved a bit to the left economically compared to the Cameron-Osborne era. And, in that process, there has been much more attention given to the obvious unfairness in post-school education. 

People have much greater support when they go down the academic road into the A-level stream school and head to university. Of course, people have had to pay fees in recent times, but the repayment system is in reasonably generous standing by international standards in comparison for instance with the US. 

But we now have efforts underway to even out the subsidy regime so that people will be able to get better support and a decent alternative even if they’re not doing university degrees. There is much more focus on investing in the technical further education system as opposed to the academic higher education system. These developments represent progress in my view. 

Although there are probably more kids going to university this year than ever before due to the uncertainties relating to the pandemic, I think the long-term trend will be a much more differentiated system of post-school education. There will be, and should still be, elite research universities where academically-able kids from whatever backgrounds should go. But I think we will see disillusionment with less prestigious universities which will start to translate into people taking up more attractive options elsewhere, from doing a six-month coding course to part- time technical, vocational qualification at your local university. Universities themselves will have to diversify.

There’s an awful lot of disillusionment with higher education, especially for those not going to the most elite institutions.

UK universities used to boast about how 95 percent of parents wanted their kids to go to university. It’s not surprising when all the best jobs in the economy are reserved for graduates—and most people tend to be graduates. 

Yet there’s been a recent survey showing that 47 percent of parents would prefer their kids to get a good technical qualification than go to university. That’s a big change from the past. Many kids still want to go to university however and it’s hard to blame them. It’s three years away from your parents, and still quite heavily subsidized by the public purse. 

People who support the continuing expansion of higher education often claim that it’s not so much what you learn at university outside the very vocational things like medicine or engineering that matters. Rather it is the very experience of going to a residential university where you’re living away from home and mixing with people from different backgrounds including social classes and different ethnicities, and that has a real benefit. 

I agree that can be one of the most beneficial things about university, and I think the question then becomes: how can we reproduce that for people who don’t want to attend an academic university or don’t qualify to do so? Why not have more residential apprenticeships, where people in Manchester could go to Bristol to do their apprenticeships for instance. The internet makes it possible to link people up easily; you could make it easier for everyone doing an apprenticeship in a certain town to meet up socially.  

There are obviously very valuable things about higher education and the way it’s evolved in recent years. Some of those things could be spread to the whole population of younger people or most of the population without forcing everybody to go to university. This path just isn’t suited for everyone, and appears to be increasingly economically dysfunctional.

Sean Speer 

Will aging demographics and the labour shortages that they produce lead to downward pressure on the secular trend of credentials creep in the labour market? In other words, when an economy tilts a bit more in the direction of workers, will it actually start to change some of the dynamics that have led to over-schooling and a bias towards credentials as a filter for hiring and promotion?

David Goodhart 

I think and hope it will. There’s still an intuitive truth to the fact that there are many forms of intelligence, and one form of intelligence is the intelligence that you glean through experience, through doing things as opposed to learning things through a book. That has been implicitly downgraded in recent decades. And because of the overproduction of graduates, graduates are filtering down the labour market. The often-false employer assumption is that somebody who holds a degree is inherently more competent than someone who doesn’t. On top of that there are many jobs where you need a non-academic aptitude, or an employee with a specific kind of personality or experience. But instead, someone with an academic qualification is being parachuted in above them. 

Employers are beginning to acknowledge that isn’t working. When only 15 percent of people went to university, there was a certain functionality to credentialism, but when 50 percent attend university, a degree just isn’t as good a signaler as it once was. And so, there’s growing talk now about more apprenticeships and recruiting people at age 18. I also think employers are dissatisfied with the kind of people they’re getting out of university. Some who probably come out with a whole lot of half-digested radical opinions about the world, and not a huge amount of competence, compared with the kids who don’t go to university. That self-correction is happening. The pandemic will speed it up.

Now, we shouldn’t forget, the pandemic has also been a wonderful example of academic knowledge being put to the public purposes, with teams of highly, cognitively-trained people cooperating across national borders to produce vaccines. It’s a vindication, in some ways, of research universities. We’ve also seen at the other end a greater regard for people doing pretty basic jobs, where key workers tended to be non-graduates. We used to frighten our children with the prospect of stacking shelves in the supermarket if they didn’t do their homework. We now realize that stacking shelves in the supermarket is an essential function. People don’t necessarily want their kids to do it permanently, but, if it’s decently paid, and the people who do it are respected and have opportunities, it can be a good job. One of the biggest employers in most advanced countries are supermarkets. They employ thousands of people at all levels. People in retail can rise up the ranks if they’re able, and not necessarily in an academic way. I think this correction is going on, and it’s partly pandemic-driven, and increasingly employer-driven. 

Sean Speer 

Well, thank you, David. The book is Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. It’s a fascinating set of insights into the interrelationship between cultural values and labour market outcomes. I have no doubt that The Hub’s readers will find as fascinating as I’ve found our conversation. 

David Goodhart 

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.