July 31, 2002
Well does it?

I don't generally pay the full wack for books. I wait until I see good stuff in the remainder shops. But I've made an exception for this book, reviewed by J. R. Shackleton in Economic Affairs (the Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs – Vol. 23 No. 2 – June 2003 – paper only so far as I am aware):

This is a good and timely book. The current government's obsession with 'education, education, education' has led it into one problem after another as it seeks to micromanage the huge UK education industry. Last year's botched teacher vetting and the A-level regrading fiasco, two recent examples, have not deterred its ever-growing compulsion to meddle, meddle, meddle. And don't even start me on the recent White Paper on Higher Education.

Alison Wolf, Professor of Education at London University's Institute of Education, is not an economist. But she attributes many of the government's failures - and those of previous Conservative governments - to the mistaken belief that education is crucial to the success of the economy. She writes that: 'An unquestioning faith in the economic benefits of education has brought with it huge amounts of wasteful government spending, attached to misguided and even pernicious policies'(p. xi).

Professor Wolf shows that the evidence contradicts the view that government spending on education plays a decisive role in economic growth. There are plenty of examples of rapidly growing economies where educational spending has been low, and of economies where relatively high educational expenditure has had little impact on growth.

Even in cases where high spending is apparently associated with high income per head, the causation is as likely to run in the opposite direction. Families in rich societies want to spend more on education, while complex modern economies also require educated people to perform more complex jobs although Professor Wolf rightly points out there is a continuing demand for employees in low-skilled fields which is often neglected.

Sounds good, doesn't it.

Here's a bit from the Introduction:

… an unquestioning faith in the economic benefits of education has brought with it huge amounts of wasteful government spending, attached to misguided and even pernicious politics. Just because something is valuable, it does not follow that yet more of it is by definition a good idea: that any addition, any increment, must be welcomed. Yet in practice this is what we seem to believe.

Okay, the book is definitely going to play to most of my libertarian prejudices. And that's not very admirable. What is better is that this woman obviously knows a lot about that education policy stuff that I have such a difficulty with. I will learn a lot if I read this book. The economic benefits of this, to me, and to the world in general, are going to be undetectable.

But I come from a family in a rich society, and I want more education.

Does Education Matter? by Alison Wolf is a Penguin paperback, first published in 2002.

And – isn't this nice? – this was where, this afternoon, I bought it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: Economics of education