The Education Bait-and-Switch

The current education system is in crisis, primarily because it no longer knows what it’s for.

That’s not a quotation, it’s a conclusion. Education in this country and many others is about preparing people for the workplace by socialising them into compliant and willing participants in an economic system designed to perpetuate economic growth at the expense of everything else. You might have thought it was to prepare people for adult life, or to nurture their ambitions, but any analysis of the education system shows just how far from that we have come.

A dispassionate observer would conclude that the purpose of education is selection. Children are brought into a system where gradually they are filtered, first by compliance and behaviour, then by tests of one sort or another. In the UK, GCSEs select people of academic ability, A-Levels determine university entrance, and universities determine fitness to go on and join the organisations which this system was established to perpetuate.

Our politicians say that they want more people to succeed while simultaneously raising the bar to ensure that more people fail. And if you think exams have got easier since you did them, then you’ve swallowed another lie. Go and try one. The past papers are available, and you can see for yourself how much easier they are. Try GCSE Biology, for instance. It has as much vocabulary to learn as GCSE French.

But it’s worse than that. Education has become an economic end in itself. The government is effectively borrowing from the populace against future tax revenue and using education as the incentive in a bait-and-switch of such enormous proportions that it’s difficult to comprehend.

This is easily evidenced by the current tuition fee policy of the government. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of arithmetic can deduce that a student paying £9,000 a year for tuition fees on a three-year course will be in debt to the government for £27,000 by the time they are at the end of a three-year course. The actual average figures are greater than this because of living expenses, rents and other fees..

There are about 400,000 university places each year. Let’s assume for simplicity that all of those places are for only a three-year course. Each student incurs a debt of £27,000 simply for their tuition fees, excluding living expenses, rent, and everything else.

400,000 x £27,000 equals an additional £10.8Bn of personal debt each year

But some of that money is paid off. For an above average UK earner being paid £30,000 per year the repayment is than £1,176 per year, potentially less.

400,000 x £1,176 equals £470.4M in repayments, which including the 1.5% interest takes 28 years to pay off that debt, so that by the time the first tranche of students have eliminated their debt to be replaced by the last tranche entering we have accumulated something like £290Bn in personal debt that is simply recycling. It never reduces because there are always new students taking on new debt. To put this in perspective the UK budget for the entirety of education, from joining primary school to post-graduate is annually about £90Bn.

So why is the government doing this? The key is that this is personal debt, not government debt.

The government doesn’t have to account for it in their figures because the money isn’t owed by them, it’s a personal loan to the students. With almost £300Bn off the books and hidden away in the loans of past students, they can claim that the deficit (the difference between what they spend and what they receive) is falling and that they are managing the economy well. What they are actually doing is concealing the problem and re-badging a graduate-tax as a loan so that they can take the money now and pay it back later.

But that’s only if things are perfect and all those student loans are paid off, whereas the actuality is that some of those students will get ill, some will move abroad, some will never earn the money to reach the threshold, some will become stay-at-home Mums and Dads, or not get jobs for one reason or another. The debt then has to be written off and falls back on the taxpayer, not now, but in 30 years time when it finally becomes due.

All of this is a direct contradiction of everything the government has said about managing the deficit, reducing borrowing and living within our means. It’s spending today against jam tomorrow in a way that’s almost certain to precipitate a financial crisis when the gamble doesn’t pay off. Taxpayers are the ones that will end up funding that crisis in the same way that it was taxpayers that bailed out the banks when they lost all our money gambling on fictitious mortgages.

We are holding out the offer of success and simultaneously hobbling our young people with debt into their late middle age so that we can support a con-trick. It’s not just morally repugnant, it’s bad economics and almost certain to fail. The important thing is it will fail later, not sooner.

So when a Conservative or Liberal Democrat supporter tells you that they are the party of good economics and financial management, you will know that what they actually mean.

  1. #1 by Palamedes on March 24, 2015 - 9:34 pm


    Some differences exit between the American and British systems of higher education. I’m going to use American system examples because I know those better. I will use the American terms of Conservatives and Liberals since simplify.

    I think Higher Education is a math equation played by those who don’t do math. Let me say that I have two degrees. I have a BA in History and an MS in Instructional Technology. I did that any where from 25 to 35 years ago. The math equation existed back then and I was lucky to survive.

    The first equation is the one for the privileged. When money does not count, completion and quality matters. In other words, the student MUST finish college to succeed. If you can’t snag the parchment, life will be tough for you. Since money does not matter, the children of the privileged have a higher chance of succeeding. When money does matter, many things can derail your education and leave you crippled for life in general.

    Conservatives support anything that let the children of the privileged succeed. Therefore, they add more loans, raise tuition, and eliminate grants. This knocks more of the children of the non-privileged out of the race. The Liberals want lower tuition and more grants to open opportunity, but America is run by the Conservatives right now. That means the privileged in America are winning.

    The way around the trap is to go cheap and don’t go in debt for higher education. Since I’m the fourth child of five, I didn’t have a lot of options on this front. My parents helped with the cost of my BA and the GI Bill and lots of work got me my MS. I did not go into debt. I went to the local state college and lived at home for both degrees. It wasn’t as much fun as going away to school, but the cost was much lower. I was not stuck with the sea anchor of educational debt to slow my growth. As such, I’m doing fairly well in my 50s.

    On the quality front, you have to understand the numbers. In America, you get an advantage for going to the Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc…) and certain colleges with an intense focus (MIT, Georgia Tech for Engineering, etc…) That quality cost a lot of money. Therefore, most of the slots in those schools go to legacies (ie. children of the privileged). A few slots go to scholarships, but the privileged have an advantage in competing for those. A few go to the needy, so they privileged can say that anyone can go. After those schools, any accredited college is pretty much equal.

    Therefore, the correct equation is to spend as little money as possible on the closest local education. My current recommendation in this area is two years at a local community college and then finish at the four year school where you can sponge off a relative for lodging and meals. If you can get your piece of parchment without debt, live will probably be good for you.

    Another big change in the math comes in the form of flavor of degree. I was at my niece’s graduation recently (BA in Nursing). I saw the nursing students and thought: “You will have a house, a car, and a nice life as soon as you ditch the education debt.” I saw the history, philosophy, and English majors and thought: “Would you like fries with that?”

    I could get a white color job with my degree 35 years ago. Managing a drug store, selling insurance, etc… I don’t think you can any more. I make my living with my Master’s degree. My History degree has been useful in my professional life, but no one will hire me to work for them with that degree.

    I have been lucky in life. My parents (who immigrated from England to America) saw that education in America was a path to the middle class. They encouraged me in my educational endeavors.

    I think my Father was a brilliant man. He saw that in England that being smart was not enough. He was not born to the right parents. Therefore, he dragged us to Canada and then the US. By doing so, he partially succeeded. I have a sister who most of a PhD in Nursing, a brother with a MS in Physics from John Hopkins, a sister with dual BAs, and myself with an MS in a pretty limited field.

    I think he bought the American Dream that a man could pull himself up by his bootstraps. That the content of a man’s character should be the deciding factor in his success. I think he would be very disappointed now. In America now, being born to the right parents is becoming more and more important. The current state of the Higher Education system in America reinforces this point.

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