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Does Education Matter?: Myths About Education and Economic Growth (Penguin Business) Paperback – November 25, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Alison Wolf is Chair of Education at the Institute of Education in London and Programme Director at the Centre for the Economics of Education. She lives in Dulwich, London.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Business
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Global (November 25, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140286608
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140286601
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,225,900 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By George C. Leef on July 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
The conventional wisdom about higher education goes like this. It is imperative for government to get more and more students into and through college because we are now in a "knowledge economy" and unless we have enough highly skilled workers, we will fall behind. Almost no one in politics or the education establishment ever questions those beliefs. It is widely accepted that increasing the amount of formal education is the means by which states or nations that are relatively poor can lift themselves up economically.

Professor Alison Wolf of King's College in London challenges the conventional wisdom in this extraordinarily insightful book. Actually, it's more than a challenge -- it's a thorough refutation. She demonstrates that the "knowledge economy" does not significantly change the broad contours of the labor force, that a high public "investment" in formal higher education is neither necessary nor sufficient for strong economic growth; and that the best educational policy to follow would be to ensure that young students learn well the academic basics (which many now don't, even if they graduate from college).

Does Education Matter? is absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in educational policy.
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Wolf makes a convincing case that if the goal is economic growth the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1990's, and arguably the US currently, is spending too much as a society on higher education. An underlying misconception is that because better educated people make more money, society will necessarily get richer if it has more educated people. The fallacy is that education is increasingly used to screen hires, so that people are more educated than necessary for the jobs they are doing. While occupational structure changed in the UK in favor of "managerial/professional/technical", going from 29% to 37% in the UK from 1984 to 1998, craft and related dropped 5.5% (p.49). It could still be argued that the occupational trends will continue and accelerate, and that education impacts these trends in the face of international competition, but there is no evidence that happened in the UK. Moreover, looking at the successful countries provides no support: Switzerland had relatively lower proportions of higher education; World Bank analyses referenced in this book found that the countries which had done the most to increase education levels on average grew less fast than those which devoted less resources (p. 39). Again, like studies in other areas such as nutrition, it is hard to separate out factors and come to definitive conclusions. Certainly, specific examples can be found in the US where there are skill gaps, and joint programs between community colleges and industry have worked very well, but that does not invalidate Wolf's general thesis.

Another theme of the book is that centrally directed educational policies, especially if aimed at promoting equality, failed in the UK and are likely to fail elsewhere.
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This is a fascinating book recommended by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in "Antifragile." Wolf debunks the notion that educating a general population beyond the age of 16 or so contributes to economic growth on a national scale. All it really does is positions an individual better in a competitive job market since prospective employers use university degrees as sorting devices. For instance, South Korea's rate of literacy in the 1960s was poor. Egypt's was high. And that explains why Egypt now has a robust, high-tech economy that is booming, filled with innovation and South Korea is an economic backwater of no global economic significance. [Irony] She also looks at the usefulness of vocational training as an alternative to university and finds it wanting. Given the rate of technological change, vocation specific training skills tend to quickly become redundant as technology and machines change. What employers need are broadly educated employees with a good basic education who can adapt quickly to the changing demands that confront them - not specialists in outdated machinery.

Wolf also analyzes the sorry history of the attempt to marry business driven vocational education with public funding. It hasn't worked. The German apprentice system has been envied by many countries for at least 150 years but no country has been able to replicate it. Wolf argues that the apprentice system is very expensive, you have to convince kids to forego lost earnings from jobs that they have not taken in order to complete the apprentice training and only for certain industries does it make sense anyway.

If you, like me, have thought that many American college students with no real interest in anything academic would be better off doing vocational training, Wolf has some excellent arguments why that little fantasy will remain just that.
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