Can you have too much education?

When Charles Adams posted “unless we stop thinking of education as a commodity, we will fall behind.” it set me thinking whether we should be offering a tertiary education as of right.

Historically and indeed up until quite recently we have been gradually raising the school leaving age and now it is in effect 18 though under the title of education or training. In Europe, Germany shares a roughly similar sort of scheme, but with an apprenticeship technical education enjoying much higher reputation than in the UK, where improving the prestige of technical training is difficult because it has so little industry to combine with. When Tesco runs apprenticeships you know that things are not quite as they seem. Roll on an industrial policy that actually actually nurtures industry.

Clearly many apprentices from Tesco or elsewhere will not want to continue their education for longer. But some might. Perhaps it is a pity that the Polytechnics are no more (although as a friend of mine who went to Polytechnic was always told: In France, Polytechnics are one of the highest forms of education – in Britain they are one of the lowest…) so I think we are stuck with the University epithet and indeed I think Britain combines having fewer doctors but more Universities per head than almost any other European country. So given that British Universities are plentiful should we not confer the right on all citizens to receive University higher education for free if they want it? And if instead that means attending later as an adult, that too, should be a right.

Isn’t this what investment in the country really means? Doesn’t this serve to open opportunities and minds for every citizen?

Or can you have too much education?



  1. Sean Danaher -

    a bit of a can of worms here. As someone who has worked in both the “old” and “new” university sectors and indeed Leeds Poly. I would hotly contest that the polytechnic sector was inferior to that of the more traditional universities.

    Ceartainly polys were far more focused on teaching and less on research and the quality of the engineering students was extremely good as they used to study for a year longer. This extra year was normally spent with the student placed with an industrial partner.

  2. Andrew Dickie -

    I couldn’t agree more, Sean. I got my L.LB. from PCL (Polytechnic of Central London), and had by then experienced both Universities (Oxford, Thessalonica and Athens) and Polytechnics (Middlesex and PCL), and appreciated both the different university styles, and the University/Poly arrangement.

    I can definitely say that quality of teaching was a function of the quality of teacher/lecturer, whether Uni or Poly.

    However, as to the systemic framework, it seems to me that it was the Polytechnics who were leading the way in innovative methods of both delivery (day release, sandwich, residential Summer schools) and integration (modular and/or combined degrees, with transferable credits), where the Universities (with the exception of, to my knowledge, Cambridge – though there may be others – which had operated a Party 1 and Part 2 system for years that effectively mimicked Poly integration and modularity)

    What then happened, alas, was that Polytechnics were persuaded that they should become Universities, surrendering to some extent, I fear, their innovative features outlined above, ironically just when Universities were beginning to pay heed to the special elements on offer from the Polytechnics.

    As I say, I have my LL.B. from the University of Westminster, but haven’t availed myself of the service of having my PCL degree certificate reissued as a University of Westminster certificate, as I’m content, and more than content to be a graduate of PCL, as much as I’m content and more than content to be a graduate of Oxford.

    1. Peter May -

      I entirely agree that Polytechnics are much maligned (hence my anecdote) but blimey – I’m amazed – with your qualifications there may be justification in the title question ‘Can you have too much education?’ “I got my L.LB. from PCL (Polytechnic of Central London), and had by then experienced both Universities (Oxford, Thessalonica and Athens) and Polytechnics (Middlesex and PCL).”
      That seems to me a plethora of riches (as one with no letters at all after his name.) Tell us more! Are you better than others – or worse… or just different. Is it of benefit or not? How does it all fit in with the current crop of Oxbridge educated politicians?

      1. Andrew Dickie -

        Peter, I’m embarrassed – no letters after your name? Hasn’t prevented your making acute and reasoned contributions on this site, from which I am happy to learn.

        You ask if I’m better, or worse, or just different from others? No idea. I only know that my thirst for qualifications derives from a double source: I frittered away my time at Oxford, not recognising I was being tutored by one of the world’s great Classical scholars, Nigel Wilson, and then by a distinguished Modern Greek scholar, Robin Fletcher, and came down with an indifferent 2nd, which led me to seek further qualifications, partly for self advancement and work (PGCE from the London University Institute of Education – missed off my list above! – and a Diploma in Management Studies from Middlesex, both with Distinction, so partly erasing my indifferent BA, then my LL.B. as I’d decided I wanted to go to the Bar, which I got with a good 2:1, and finally the Degree of Utter Barrister at the end of my Bar School course, where I dropped back down to “middle of the road”. The two Greek Universities were foreign study (Thessalonica) and doctoral research at Athens University, which I never finished, as I’d married and had a child, and needed to work.

        However, an equally powerful motivator was that I just love learning, which is why I find myself “foaming at the mouth” to hear education reduced to “value for money” – truly a cynic’s view as in “a cynic is someone who knows the price and cost of everything and thr value of nothing”.

        And, even though I’m now 73, if I won on the Lottery (impossible, as I don’t play, but if I inherited enough money) I’d go back to Uni like a shot, and draw together all I’ve learned (forgot to say I’m a CofE Lay Reader, so have a Certificate in Christian Studies from the Diocese of London) into a doctoral thesis, the topic for which would only emerge as I undertook predoctoral studieIn

        In a word, I love learning, and would almost wish to have on my tombstone those wonderful words from Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses”: “and this grey spirit yearning with desire, to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bounds of human thought”

      2. Peter May -

        Thanks very much for your informative reply.
        Agree wholeheartedly with the ‘love learning’ bit as well as the crazy idea that education has to be ‘value for money’- whatever that is supposed to mean!
        And yet, whilst being in admiration of your obvious talents, I’m personally, oh dear, rather more cynical – I’m a bit wary of formalised learning (and probably – atttention deficit disorder like – would find it pretty soul destroying to conduct the actual research to which I often refer) but I enjoy the ideas and feel strongly about injustice and the way we organise society.
        I really wonder how on earth all those Oxbridge PPE educated politicians can have received a ‘proper’ education when they fail to understand the harm they are doing. Are they perhaps just ‘ethically challenged’ – in which case doesn’t that imply that their higher education – at least from Oxbridge – is wanting?

      3. Andrew Dickie -

        In answer to your last question – yes! If a mediocrity such as David Cameron can get a PPE First, warning bells should be ringing.

      4. Sean Danaher -

        its an interesting debate. C P Snow used to talk about two cultures, crudely Arts vs Science. I am definitely on the science side and the UK played no part in my education (pre PhD level). I know many Oxbridge firsts but they are in Sciences and they are every bit as good as the Irish or Americans (my education was University College Dublin/Harvard Smithsonian).

        These PPE people seem however more concerned with persuasion, sophistry, oratory rather than substance. This may of course come from the Oxford Union as much as their education. There is a bizarre belief that victory is just one great speech away. There also seems to be a strong belief that they are born to rule and they are somehow “better”. This is worrying as one would hope even the most biassed player would have the self awareness that Brexit is not going well. Sadly persuasion can only get you so far.

      5. Andrew Dickie -

        I’m particularly referring to the mediocrity of Cameron’s intellect in the above. However, that is all of a piece with the rest of him.

  3. Ms Christine Bergin -

    Education actually never ends although formal school based education may do so. I am in my seventies and have rediscovered a love of history. My formal schooling didn’t get past the Elizabethan age due the moving homes so I am having a lot of fun and enjoying the adventures from then until ‘lets say now’ for convenience. So many things we learn in an informal way which is why it is a tragedy that libraries are being decimated. I don’t think much learning can be acquired from TV as it is so heavily biased toward entertainment but even that may spark an interest in something. The trick is to have somehow the way to follow up that spark. It would be wonderful to learn from a professional teacher just how to organise my interest in a less random way.

  4. Peter May -

    Agreed – especially about libraries – although judicious study over the internet – ironically freely avaialble in libraries (if any) – can provide a substitute. The OU is certainly good but it now probably costs a fortune…

  5. Peter Dawe -

    My son is a taxi driver, he is happy being a taxi driver. We discouraged him from staying on into 6th form as he just looked out of the window. He has a massive advantage over many other taxi drivers in that he has more experience than his peers and no education debt.

    There are many similar careers that do not need “Education” beyond a functional knowledge. I know there are many young people who have no interest in being “educated”.

    The arrogance of people who “demand” everyone be educated means that those who take this rational choice are denigrated. These careers are also seen as demeaning.

    In Hitch-hikers Guide… The population of a planet died of a telephone bourne disease after they threw out the telephone sanitisers.

    1. Andrew Dickie -

      Peter, for me the other key component of education, beyond the disinterested pursuit of ideas for their own sake that is implicit, even explicit, in my other comments here, is that it is all to do with freedom, not in the usual Right Wing sense (which almost always boils down to a synonym for consumer choice), but in the sense of enabling the student to be free of deception, to be able to see through the lies, and not to have the wool pulled over their eyes.

      I’d be willing to wager that your son is already well-educated in that way, especially as you say he has “more experience than his peers”. That he has “no education debt” cannot be anything other than an extra plus.

      I don’t look down on people who lack formal education, especially when I recognise that they possess the critical faculties that an educated person should possess, but alas, in the case of those wonderfully criticised by Dennis Skinner for being “educated beyond their intelligence” (a failing of the majority of the current Cabinet, IMO), often do not.

      The process and effect of education, as with bringing up children, is about freedom and redundancy – giving the student/child the tools to stand on their own, and no longer to need the teacher/parent, who thereby becomes redundant. So I would indeed like everyone to be “educated” in this special sense, namely, that they have been given the tools to see through the false arguments, and so are able to exercise, and enjoy, autonomy. I’m sure your son will be well “educated” in this special sense, and all power to him for striking out to achieve his autonomy.

      1. Peter May -

        An excellent summary, Andrew – and with a wonderful Dennis Skinner quote thrown in for free!

      2. Charles Adams -

        Completely agree it is about freedom.

        Another great quote:

        The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man, ..
        Marcus Mosiah Garvey (St. Ann’s Bay 1887 — London 1940), Nova Scotia, October 1937.

      3. Ivan Horrocks -

        Charles, picking up on this quotation and a comment you make below, surely it is to counter allowing young people to ‘develop and use’ their minds that both in HE and schools successive Tory government (and to an extent New Labour) sought to limit and control the curriculum. This has been going on for several decades now and contnues apace as far as I can see.

        To use an example that I’m directly familiar with (and that was once much discussed on the TRUK blog), when I took my degree in public administration as a mature student in the early 1990s a subject you could study at 2nd and final year was political economy. Central to that teaching was the work of Smith, Riccardo, Marx and so on. But as with many subjects that challenged students to question and critically evaluate ideas, norms and so on – and in particular any subject that had any word or term in it that could in any way be associated with ‘left wing’ thinking – political economy was seen as far too ‘progressive’, and so the university I studied at (and subsequently taught at) withdrew the course in favour of mainstream (i.e. neoliberal) economics. This took place across the HE sector, as I’m sure you know.

        Of course, the management in some – perhaps many – universities were only too happy to go along with this ‘steralisation’ of HE. They were – and still are – ideologically dispossed to such policies. And many on the right would no doubt argue this was needed to correct a left wing bias. Maybe that’s true. But ultimately the aim was – and still is – to ensure as many students as possible leave university as compliant and unquestioning individuals, who are therefore little threat to the neoliberal system that has created – and now seeks to maintain and present as the norm – a society and economy far more vicious, cruel, mean and exploitative than any generation since the 1940s has had to face.

        And this project – which can in many ways be seen as just another dimension of the whole grand plan of ‘dumbing down’ education (let’s not get started on grade inflation in HE) – continues apace. To take another current example: a friend teaches history at university but due to the government’s obsession with ’employability’ tells me that nowadays at their institution a history student’s main focus for their first year is not history but a course that focuses on various aspects of so called ’employability’ (e.g. how to write a CV). In their first year! And there is no escaping this, as like all universities the relevant box has to be ticked otherwise there will be consequences.

        When I was at school in the 1970s – a secondary modern – most of the kids realised by their final year, as I did, that we were the latter day equivalent of ‘cannon fodder’ – perhaps shop and factory fodder captures it nicely. And indeed, that was clearly set out when we had our one and only career advice session (although to be accurate joining the military was also pushed hard). It seems to me that gradually at first, but with increasing pace and intensity since 2010, this approach (philosophy perhaps?) to education has come to dominate HE, although with much less impact across Oxbridge and Russell Group universities of course.

        Perhaps we’ve hit a point now where it’s becoming apparent that this policy hasn’t been as succesful as it’s advocates thought it had – hence the current doubling down on the monetisation of HE and the government’s unwillingness to consider alternative funding arrangements for students. But whatever the situation, what’s clear is that as in every policy area neoliberalism has left its indelible mark and the vast majority of citizens – whether as individuals or as a society – are paying the price and will continue to do so for many a long year.

    2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      ‘Class’, as in social class staus, is what has poisoned our entire education system and it persists.

      The notion that a university offers a ‘better’ education is nonsense. It may offer a different education from a Polytechnic or Technical college, but it is neither qualitatively nor quantitatively better, just different. As observed above somewhere the quality of the ‘teaching’ (learning guidance) is probably the most significant factor.

      I was first most acutely aware of the philosophical foolishness when the Comprehensive education shift occurred in secondary education. I felt this was a step in a wrong direction, though it was well meaning as an attempt to break down class attitudes (the divisive consequences of the ‘eleven plus) it failed inherently because it tacitly acknowledged that secondary modern schools were second rate.

      What was needed was an acceptance that secondary modern schools needed to be different and to be successful they needed to offer a first rate education of a non academic nature.

      I think UK education was doomed at that point. The trend continued inexorably into tertiary education when the Polytechnics caved in to the pressure form various sides to offer ‘degree’ qualifications where in some cases they were totally inappropriate.

      As a qualification a first degree now has a very diluted status, and can indicate very diverse levels of achievement and frankly I am not concerned that I do not have one to my name.

      Ironically it is symptomatic of the failure of education that many people employed in the education sector do not seem to understand what education is for and have abjectly failed to educate our political class.

  6. Samuel Johnson -

    I have been driven from A to B by taxi drivers with PhDs. In Moscow one was an engineer who worked on subsea diving craft for a research institute by day, and as a taxi driver by night.

    In Vancouver it was an Indian with a degree that wasn’t recognised in Canada, in nuclear medicine. He’d been a taxi driver for years and didn’t seem angry about it. It seemed a grotesque waste to me. This is not a judgment on taxi drivers. The chances are that countless potential Einsteins have spent and are spending their lives as penniless agricultural labourers. Until everyone has an equal opportunity to realise their potential it’s hard to conclude that there’s too much education.

    Anyone who has watched Question Time in the last year or so, or looked at the “newspapers” that sell in the UK, is unlikely to conclude that the UK electorate is over-educated. Reportedly, 8m people in the UK are functionally illiterate. I would be interested to see some analysis of education levels and political stability, the value of which is surely more than the cost of some educational investment that didn’t yield an immediate financial return.

  7. Michael Green -

    I have always thought that the best reason to go to University is to learn not to believe everything you are told.

    1. Charles Adams -

      Exactly Michael, the purpose of a university is to enable people to think for themselves, and those that think can do.

      1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

        Yes Charles, but it needs to start earlier.

        Young people need to already have the capacity to think through the question ‘Should I be going to a university?’ And if so why, and if not why not, and what other more sensible path should I pursue.

        At that age the question really shouldn’t be dominated by wondering at the cost of it in financial terms.

  8. Charles Adams -

    My question would be: Can you have too much knowledge?

    1. Peter May -

      Are you suggesting this is in effect, the same question as mine – ie education is the process and knowledge is the result (well, supposed to be..)?
      In which case I’d just suggest that if you think for yourself you might not end up with much more knowledge – or at least usable knowledge – as a result of education.
      Always remember seeing a film, a long time ago, about London taxi drivers’ knowledge. The tutor not only imparted ‘the knowledge’ he was a mickey taker and played the fool – on the not unreasonable grounds that if they were driving a taxi from A to B but couldn’t put up with the passengers there was not much point in continuing – that last bit was the education, as distinct from the knowledge!

      1. Charles Adams -

        My first reaction was that your question frames education as a commodity. Could we similarly ask, can you have too much health?

        But education can of course be good and bad. Andrew’s point about freedom is good, but sadly, ‘education’ can also be employed to limit rather than liberate. So yes, you can have too much in that case.

  9. Graham -

    Perhaps we could distinguish between “schooling” and “education”. What passes for the latter is in fact too often the former. Schooling is what the government promotes – becoming good citizens ready to take our place as productive members of society etc etc. Education is, as others have said, more about developing an enquiring mind, critical appraisal and so on.

    But schooling is also about reproduction. The “public” schools, Oxbridge, among other things, help reproduce an elite who move seamlessly into so many of the “top” institutions, professions, academia, journalism, politics, justice and so on. Thus is the status quo of power maintained.

    Conversely, state schooling seeks to reproduce a compliant citizenry.

    “The fault….is that we are underlings.”

  10. Peter May -

    Good point. Agree entirely that education is often schooling and perhaps indeed schooling should be defined as what comes first – the 3 Rs and so on. Education should be the bit that builds on those foundations, whilst encouraging thought.. In effect this seems on similar lines to Dennis Skinner’s idea of being educated beyond your intelligence.
    Probably equals too much schooling and not enough education….

  11. Graham -

    I assume Skinner was being sarcastic. I don’t believe “intelligence”, as in IQ, is a useful idea – it’s a culturally defined (and measured) concept. I suspect there are many kinds of intelligence.

    Another issue, is the power structures surrounding education/schooling – for example, between the teacher and learner and who decides what and how stuff is to be taught.

  12. Peter May -

    I take a more intuitive line on intelligence, which I agree is not IQ, but I think most of us know when we encounter someone we meet whteher or not they are intelligent even if they are intelligent only in some areas (exemplified by the absent minded professor with the untied shoe laces and chaotic hair! )

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