The economics of education

Rebecca Hanson's picture
My apologies for my previous post - I thought we had to supply some personal information! Anyway, down to business.

I noticed at one of the pending WEF consultations there was a space for an 'economist of education.'

I was greatly influenced by Eddie West: links here and here who was a leading international economist of education as I grew up because he was a family friend.

So the instant Michael Gove and co. opened their mouths I knew that they had no insight into this discipline whatsoever. There views regarding free markets in education are completely at odds with all established theory. I have looked in detail for any coherent or credible source to their views on free markets in education but, after a year, have concluded there is none whatsoever. They seem to have been born in think tanks where assorted people with no experience in education and no academic insight spoke to each other until they became convinced they knew what they were talking about and established, somehow, the ability to convince others that they did too.

My question is,
Is there an economist of education who understands complete models of state education in the UK today? If so who?

Eddie's main conclusions were that the disciplines and processes involved in reforming complete education systems are totally different to those involved in establishing new systems or developing systems with partial coverage. The EG West centre he founded with his legacy focuses on the latter discipline, not the former, but his work does make clear recommendations about the former discipline too.
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JimC's picture
Mon, 03/10/2011 - 05:16

There are lots of theories when it comes to economics. It would help your article if you described what established theory you mean and provided some more detail about your particular position - am I correct in thinking that you are favour of low cost private schools for the poor?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/10/2011 - 07:10

No Jim, not at all.

You see while Eddie came up with alternative theories and proposals, if you read a book like 'Education and the State - which I linked to above' you see that during his career he came to understand that where you have a national system with complete coverage - it would naturally form itself into the kind of status quo we had - with governance at multiple levels and planned intervention.

His theme its that we could have started with a voucher system or private education subsidised for the poor in Victorian times - but history would have taken us towards the kind of system we had because it is efficient for a complete system.

The cost of trying to make a fundamental structural change would be massive and prohibitive - rather like trying to swap from driving on the left to driving on the right.

An education system with full coverage is not a free market. The limitations of place and state funding make that model entirely inappropriate. The other aspect of free market economics is that it makes little or no allowance for altruism in the conduct of individuals and of course we have masses of that in education. Not to recognise that makes a nonsense of what it is and not to actively capitalise on it with planned personal responsibility which is dispersed downwards is going to be massively inefficient.

Eddie was mum and dad's best man. Dad was a leading economist who was one of the academics who researched and consulted on the labour relations reforms which underpinned the Thatcher government.

We just talked about this stuff all the time.

Free market economics was never a ulitmate goal. It was a necessary but horifically painful medicine which the country needed to take to break out of destructive cycles. It was NEVER thought wise, nor even remotely sane, to apply it to education or health wholesale.

Instead what was recommened was that no changes should be made which were not deeply cogniscent of the reasons for the status quo. It was to be understood that freedom of choice, though desirable, was alwags going to be bounded and that people's expectations needed to be managed. We should continue to reform our system and work in that direction but the refoms had to start by understanding why we were as we were in order to be either efficient or effective.

This was totally different to the recommendations for countries with emerging education systems which is where most of the work influenced by Eddie has been done. If you don't have complete coverage freedom of choice can play a much more powerful and valuable role. But, of course, there is no freedom of choice for those who get no education.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/10/2011 - 12:27

Sorry about all the typos by the way - I often don't get the chance to properly proof posts because of juggling posting and kids.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 04/10/2011 - 20:30

"Is there an economist of education who understands complete models of state education in the UK today? If so who?"

I didn't know education conformed to any models of economics, or that the state or private education sector could be intrerpreted by conventional economic concepts or markets, unlike private health insurance where "adverse selection" and "moral hazard" dictate that the market for this type of insurance is flawed.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/10/2011 - 20:51

It's the same analytical structures Nigel.

I guess I could ask is 'Is there anyone who can talk fluently about the whole structure of state education - both how it is (which I know many who are invovled in it can) and why it is as it is and the wider economic structures which dictate that and explain how it will interact with perturbations?

I know times change and communication technology has altered what is best. So when Gove came in with all these ideas which were obviously completely insane in the context of this kind of orthodoxy I thought there must be someone involved could give a coherent context for them.

But after a long search (see the Top Trumps thread in the UK Education group on it's obvious that there isn't anyone involved who actually has a clue what they're talking about at all. They've got no experience in education and they are systematically excluding people who have. There's no academic influence there and they clearly haven't even read a really simple, basic, easy to read and universal text like 'Education and the State'. This is a 'London Bubble/Conservative Right Wing Bubble' thing. They've just spoken to each other until they're all convinced they actually know what they're talking about and there is nothing whatsoever at the heart of it but hubris and proactive media spin which militates against intelligent voices being heard.

And I want to know why I'm not hearing anyone credible saying this? Why is no-one ripping into the ludicrous deluded heart of this policy from a holistic and economic perspective which entirely transcends political parties?

I'm also offering to interact with anyone who'd like to be able to do it or to interact with people through any online medium to up their level of fluency on this. :-)

I do recommend the book though - it is a nice easy read.
Here it is again:
written just before Eddie died.

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