An education is not a commodity

These are dark days for the UK higher education sector. First the good news. The UK university sector is still world leading – 16 universities in the top 100, second only to the US with 25, third is Australia. Although speaking English seems to help, these league tables do seem to suggest that UK universities do have world leading scholars. We should celebrate that, because first and foremost a university is community of scholars, who aim to advance knowledge and share this knowledge as widely as possible.

Now the bad news – and it more than just bad, it is tragic – the sector is in decline due to poor leadership (the current strike is a symptom of a wider crisis). Despite their claims, the blame lies completely in the hands of politicians. Their fundamental error is to treat higher education as a commodity and a belief that the market knows best. From the Guardian today, on the ranking of degrees:

Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, said it would help “ensure that more students get the value for money they deserve from higher education”.


A DfE spokesman said the [TEF] ratings system would allow students to make “consumer-style comparisons of degree courses”.

The error in these statements is that an education is not something that can be consumed or even bought and sold. Paying for a degree does not guarantee that you will learn anything, and does not guarantee that you have something useful to sell. You should go to university, not because you want to earn more money, you should go in the pursuit of knowledge that, one day, may or may not be useful. Now you might think this is some kind of ivory tower thinking, and I need to spend some time in the real world (actually I have done my bit for wealth creation), but if you do a bit of research you will find that it is the pursuit of knowledge rather than the pursuit of wealth, that has produced the most significant gain in our standard of living. The pursuit of knowledge was the ingredient that doubled life expectancy since the time of Adam Smith, gave us electric lights to read by, and the internet to share by.

The problem for politicians is that you cannot buy knowledge, you have to create it, by yourself, sometimes with help from others, but always by hard graft. Students are not consumers, they are workers, working on acquiring the knowledge and skills that help to make the world a better place. More enlightened countries like Denmark pay their students to refine their skills. We used to do that too (I still remember my visits to the Rochdale Education Authority to pick up my cheque, they have a new building now but it does not give out cheques). Unless we relearn the ability to value knowledge not as consumers but for its own sake, unless we realise that the value lies in the creators of knowledge and those that share it, unless we stop thinking of education as a commodity, we will fall behind.

There is another way and it is a better way.


  1. Peter May -

    Even on very neoliberal terms where students are ‘human resources’, it makes sense to invest in their education unless you think it will not benefit the country. It will almost definitely make the student happier even if they don’t earn more as they will have a wider understanding – even if only for leisure pursuits..
    The government wants to treat university as a sausage machine. If it were, Britain would certainly not be in any world rankings!

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  3. Andrew Dickie -

    I really do despair, not just at the blinkered, even militant, philistinism of the current rabble, whose inelegant bums (matching even more inelegant minds) currently occupy the seats of power, but even more at their inability to make sense of their surroundings, and so grasp the realities of those surroundings.

    The modern world is replete with great discoveries that happened entirely by accident, and not to order – penicillin and Pritt being the sublime and the ridiculous, with the former the result of not cleaning Petri dishes effectively enough, and then leaving them on the windowsill, the latter a botched attempt to create a different adhesive that turned out to be a worldbeater. Or the man who came up with “cat’s eyes” for road safetyAll the result of serendipity allied to a mind willing to think outside the box, or to see possible applications, and none of which, along with countless others, would never have seen the light of day, even if thr GDP of the USA had been brought to bear.

    Quote simply, serendipity and blue sky thinking, and staring out of the window, or up into the sky – both of which were in the repertoire of Sir Isaac Newton, as possibly his most powerful tools, since they allowed him space to think – these are essential to real innovation, as well as real scholarship, which I would define as “the disinterested pursuit of ideas and truth for their own sake”.

    It would be very interesting for someone to undertake research to discover which of applied/paid for research and “blue sky” research had actually been more productive, not just in terms of products created, but in terms of effect on a GINI measurement of society.

  4. Donald Liverpool -

    I respect your point of view about the purpose of education. You must realise though that there are other people who don’t share it, who do value the financial rewards that might accrue, and what those rewards might mean in terms of material goods, pulling power, and making your parents happy. There will be a big cross over of the two views, where people value academic freedom, knowledge, purity of purpose, money now and money for their pension across a spectrum. But what I don’t respect about your view is why you think you should get to force your view on other people who don’t share it and to do so using the coercive power of the state.

    1. Marco Fante -

      Re. this: “people who don’t share it, who do value the financial rewards that might accrue, and what those rewards might mean in terms of material goods, pulling power, and making your parents happy.”

      Well that’s great Donald now you can go and get yourself one of those mail-order MBAs from the Zero-Cred Academy. In the meantime the most advanced civilisations will continue to be those that cultivate unencumbered higher learning. As has always has been the case.

      By the way that wet, dripping nonsense about “force” and “coercive power” would be as just as applicable (or non-applicable) if your preference was adopted.

    2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      Donald, I think, with respect, that you are confusing the functions of training with the functions of education.

      Both are valuable and necessary in a well balanced society. Individuals need skills to perform useful services whether that be practical trade skills or more esoteric ‘softer skills and these are acquired by training.

      Education is, or should be about acquiring and honing the capacity to think, which is itself a particular skill. Training is a matter of learning, with the intention of being able to apply (and make a good living from) skills and knowledge. Education in it’s wider sense pushes into new ground.

      When Tony Blair notoriously said his parties priorities were ‘Education, education,….. and education, I think he meant training to produce a better equipped workforce.

      Education and training are two sides of the same coin, which should lead towards increased prosperity (hopefully for everybody) but they are not quite the same thing and politicians and even a lot of academics have failed consistently to grasp this simple distinction.

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  6. Tony_B -

    Knowledge, discovery and invention all rely on a strong evidence based approach, networking and hard craft. Unfortunately, such an evidence based approach is largely absent from politicians’ reaching certain opinions; they treat eduction as a convenient political football. And to top that, the modern breed of Populist politicians don’t need evidence, in fact claiming it [expert view] is counter productive.

    1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      “….Populist politicians don’t need evidence, in fact claiming it [expert view] is counter productive.”

      The expert view in reality can be quite dangerous and as you say tends to be counterproductive. It assumes a ceiling bound to knowledge which has been reached, by the expert.

      Real experts in any field have reached a pinnacle of knowledge which allows them to perceive the vast extent of their ignorance.

  7. Ms Christine Bergin -

    I think the above article and comments illustrate very well the fact that although a Public school education may be bought at the highest prices it does not provide for the serendipity of the council school playground and the general education provided by lack of money and resources but abundance of imagination thus earned.
    My feeling is that our public schools provide an education which will limit imagination in the interest of conformity and by excluding the ‘others’ will lead to a very dull, un-inventive and stunted future with no leavening of genius.

  8. Andrew -

    The idea that education is all about “value for money” … words fail me. Is art all about value for money? What about literature?

    How do you put a value on happiness or well-being? Or perseverance, self-discipline or creativity? Yes you could argue that these are among the most important life skills for anyone to have.

  9. Nile -

    What if the overriding objective of all higher education institutions is to funnel money to a parasitic overclass of lenders and vice-chancellors?

    You might disagree, but do you really want to get into that argument with your Vice-Chancellor, the Government, and Labour Party policy?

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