The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Is The Education System Broken?
May 15, 2012, 6:15 am
Filed under: Comment

Life isn’t fair.

I wish it was, but it isn’t and – sadly – I doubt it ever will be.

Some issues are more obvious than others and some are more serious than others – however one that bugs the crap out of me is education for profit.

Basically I’m vehemently opposed to it.


I appreciate running schools and universities is expensive … I certainly believe teachers should be getting paid a great salary … but that doesn’t excuse the outrageous costs that some schools and universities charge for the privilege of their education.

I recently read a report on acquisitions made by schools and universities in Australia, America and the UK and it was frightening reading.

We’re not talking school books and computers … oh no … we’re talking land and property that was in the tens of millions.


What the fuck?!

Where the hell does a school or university get money like that?

To me, that is outrageous, whether you’re Harvard or, even more shockingly – a school from the northern suburbs of Sydney.

A few years ago, Harvard come out and said, ‘They didn’t want to be a production line for the next generation of super-rich bankers’.

Because I was doing some work with them via Google, I immediately wrote to someone very senior at the organisation to say how positive that was to hear.

I also added that if they really wanted to ensure they achieved their goal, one way they could do it was to double their schooling costs because, let’s face it, people would still pay and for everyone who did, they could allow someone who had no intention to go into the traditional Harvard employment channels, in for free.

I got an email back that simply said, “You’ve got us”.

Of course my plan was inherently flawed – I know that – but making public statements about wanting to ‘do good for society’ or giving out a few scholarships doesn’t fool anyone because as everyone knows, talk is cheap and if they really wanted to make a difference, they would not be acquiring bank balances that make the Greek and Spanish Governments jealous.

Education is a basic human right …

Everyone should have it …

Everyone should benefit from it …

… but all this high-priced education is doing is creating a class system, not of the ‘educated’ versus ‘everyone else’ but of those ‘who have a lifetime of debt’ and those ‘who won’t’ which is even worse in a lot of respects.

What’s worse is that because schools, universities and governments have lowered the overall ‘pass criteria’ to ensure they achieve high pass rates and the illusion of ‘accessibility’ … it’s created a mass of people that [1] think they can go to university[2] think they need to go to university and [3] have a degree but still can’t get a job because there’s so many out there in the same position.

No wonder – as Sir Ken Robinson said – that we are in the grip of educational inflation, where having a degree isn’t enough, it has to be an MBA and soon, an MBA won’t mean as much so it will have to be a PHD etc etc.

We need educated people.

We need smart, clever folk who can help make things better for them and the World.

But apart from the fact not everyone has to go to university to achieve that, we seem to creating a society that is inheriting debt rather than having the skills and opportunities to create more opportunity and profit for everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re some amazing schools, universities and teachers out there … I think education is vitally important and inherently beautiful thing … but I worry the people who are benefiting the most from the current system are the ones running it rather than the ones experiencing it and that’s bad news for everyone, especially the future generations.

OK, rant over. Just needed to get that off my chest.

45 Comments so far
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I have no idea what prompted you to write this but bravo.

Comment by Bazza

Just in case you don’t know, it’s too late to join the presidential race and you need to be American.

Comment by Bazza

fuck me, thats scarier than palin.

Comment by andy@cynic

“Creating a class system of those ‘who have a lifetime of debt’ and those ‘who won’t’ which is even worse in a lot of respects.”

As you say later in this post, what is even more shameful is that there are now so many people holding the same piece of educational qualification paper that it fails to put you ahead of the pack. In fact, it makes you exactly the same.

I know George may disagree, but I like it when you rant about unrelated advertising subject matters.

Comment by Pete

A subject close to my heart – I personally have problems with either paid-for education or healthcare. When it comes to education, free eduation probably means limited numbers of graduates and I have no problem with that – but it requires society to accept that lak of a degree isn’t a sign of inferiority and more importnantly, we have to ensure everyone gets a world clasc eduation up to the age of 18 and one whch is not geared simply to sending kids to uiniversity.

Comment by John

And compulsory typing lessons. Sheesh.

Comment by John

Can I ask John what you think the criteria for University should be? I’m serious – I have my thoughts but I’d love to hear yours.

Comment by Rob

Difficult to answer as the university experience varies between countries. For me, I was blessed with a great non-private school education that taught me to argue, write and calculate (tho not to speak) and to work together and on my own. So the idea that university would make me more self-directed was nonsense. It was a part-time experience with small work-load and accesss to educators nthat was geared around the needs of the academics rather than the students. My later experience in the US was in total contrast to this incidentally.

So, on one hand, university has to prepare one for the real world in a way that three or four years in the real world wouldn’t, so I can see a role for it in medicine and or those who will research and teach. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want them just to be vocational factories.

For me the key is not university, it’s getting a very good basic education to everyone up to age 16 – that levels people up and perhaps makes a more level playing field for everying moving forward. Once that’s in place, university then becomes somewhere you go for a positive reason rather than as the next destination on the conveyor belt.

Comment by John

Thank you mate, I really appreciate that and probably share many of your views. Many years ago I met a professor at a university who said the biggest issue he now faced was he worked at a place that had gone from fanning the flames of radical ideas to conforming a view to ensure a production line of finance industry employees. His words still ring loudly in my ears.

Comment by Rob

Anyone else find it funny this post was written by a guy who didn’t go to university and the first 2 commentators went to Stamford and Harvard?

Just saying.

Comment by DH

You failed to mention that both Bazza and I got into our respective universities on scholarships. Given neither of us ended up in the finance industry, I would say that is a major positive. What a shame Baz ruined this passionate comment by ending up in jobs that secured him more money than if he was the head of JP Morgan. (Sorry Baz, I could not help myself)

Comment by Pete

and campbell is hardly mr fucking poor and that bastard does nothing so bang goes your badly fucking spelt theory dave. dont cry, the national enquirer called and they want you to be their editor.

Comment by andy@cynic

Always a silver lining.

Comment by DH

not if you call doddsy stephen fucking fry there isnt.

Comment by andy@cynic

Maybe to his coffin.

Comment by John

good fucking call doddsy.

Comment by andy@cynic

And I bet Doddsy went somewhere impressive. He’s the Stephen Fry of this blog. Or something.

Comment by DH

You’ll pay for that one day. But I didn’t. I also benefitted from a scholarship. Hence my aversion to paid education. And don’t get me started on private schools where a year’s tuition exceeds the national average pre-tax salary.

Comment by John

You should check out NYC’s outrageous pre-school situation, John. Fees of up to $20,000+ per anum to “educate” a 3 year old, justified by supposedly having an influence on university choice in later life. The world has gone mad and I refuse to let my precious children get caught up in it.

Comment by George

Are they able to register as charities, like british private schools do?

Comment by John

Not sure. I wouldn’t put it past them, the money grabbing buggers. Mind you, I once had a boss that tried to register our agency as a charity as we lost so much money on a client. Inspired evil genius.

Comment by Rob

DH, the university is Stanford. The other one, Stamford, is where the Stanford and Harvard grads roll drunk off the train on their way home from Wall Street.

Comment by Ciaran McCabe

That explains their drinking problem.

By the way I didn’t go to university, can you tell?

Comment by DH

Excellent post Robert. Like John, this is also a subject close to my heart and not purely due to having 3 daughters growing up in the blink of an eye.
A university education is a wonderful thing but when pass grades are lowered to accommodate the need to both drive revenue and create the perception of a highly educated society, it undermines the long term benefits and value of such an approach.
Not going to university is not a crime. Not going to university does not mean you are intellectually inferior to others. Maybe if more people realised this and infrastructure was created to allow these people to blossom, the overall potential of our society would rise rather than be riddled with unnecessary debt.
You’re wrong Pete, I like it when Robert writes posts like this.

Comment by George

That’s Harvard grads for you.

Comment by John

how does it feel campbell that the post that gets auntie on his soapbox has fuck all to do with your planning theory bollocks and everything to do with something youre even less fucking qualified to talk about.

Comment by andy@cynic

You think I don’t know that? You forget, I’ve made a career of getting people to comment on things I know nothing about. It’s what I do.

Comment by Rob

thank fuck my daughter is already showing signs of being a genius so every fucking top university will pay me to have her study there or id be fucked. 2 ex parasite wives is one thing. a fucking university bill is like bein in debt to the fucking mafia.

i almost like this post campbell, then i remember you wrote it and i stop giving a fuck.

Comment by andy@cynic

Thank god she inherited your genes rather than her mothers amazing looks, brains and grace or she would find it so much harder to be successful in her life..

Comment by Rob

shes one lucky lady. actually its two. the wife cant believe her luck she bagged a man like me.

Comment by andy@cynic

Agree Rob. Education is everything. I also think that free education should be for everyone. There is no government around the world who wants unemployed people. That means for me that there is a lot of opportunities to explore outside of economists, doctors, business, lawyers, etc. There is a lot of opportunities to be painter, electrician, gas, etc. I mean, craft jobs. Like our parents.
Small business should be the new fashion occupation.
Governments should put focus on that kind of “education”

Comment by jime

I agree with so much of this, Campbell, but it’s not just education inflation and the obvious student loan burdens that are an issue (though the latter’s a disaster, I agree), but the fact that because they have this batshit insane non-payment structure and 5 year job interview called grad school, that the best talent is almost actively being kept out of academia.
So… to add to the gripe about debt, look at how grad school works, which feeds in to the quality of education the poor damn undergrads are getting for the debt they’re accruing (at least in the UK, but a lot is true for the States too):
There’s an open assumption that you will have parents who can/are willing to pick up the tab for you. Even though everyone doing a PhD is a grown-ass person. I have been told straight out, at the age of 30, by university staff: “But can’t your parents help you, financially?” That’s step one of messed up-ness: almost only rich kids whose parents are happy to subsidise education for education’s sake can actually go to grad school. You wonder why academia is bland and boring? Why it systemically fails to understand the challenges faced by kids from “non-traditional” backgrounds? Look no further. It’s one thing to try and give a handful of kids scholarships; it’s another to create a situation which is welcome and inclusive. If all the staff members have had their parents pick up their tabs until they were in their 30s, it’s not creating an inclusive environment. Some of the most bigoted remarks i’ve heard go unchallenged – about women, about minorities – have happened in UK academic settings. If the workplace was more diverse, that shit would not fly.

Also – If you take loans, you will NEVER be able to make up that money on an academic salary. Even if you are “lucky” enough to have a stipend, they barely scrape minimum wage. Barely. So: if you’re supposedly the best and the brightest, you can barely support yourself. How’s that for an incentive? You’re also expected to be grateful for being paid minimum wage. Grateful. The people universities end up keeping, as a result, outside the people who don’t really have to work, the occasional kid who has never known anything outside of school and who doesn’t know better, or the inevitable rogue hermit who is happy to live off dew and tree bark, are often the clever people who can’t do anything else – because they’re socially dysfunctional or for one reason or another are truly incapable of dealing with the outside world.

As a result – with VERY few exceptions, graduate schools frown on creativity, on anything that is outside the traditional mold. I’m actually all for tradition, but when it either serves a purpose, or is beautiful. It isn’t, in most academia: it’s fear. It filters through everything that’s created. I believe that it’s worth spending time doing things, and thinking. I don’t believe that engaging with things that are happening in the world around us is irrelevant. And I don’t believe that the peer-reviewed article should be the be all and end all of what counts as knowledge, with no attempt to include the outside world, or allow for creativity.

As a nasty sting of the scorpion’s tail: even if you survive all of that – the poverty, the insularity, the in-built conservative crushing of every reason you wanted to go to graduate school and learn about something in the first place, you run in to the fact that 2/3 PhD students (in my experience) have serious problems with their supervisors, ranging from not getting their work read, to intellectual property theft, to outright bullying. Do the universities care? Nope. They see their jobs as to protect their own, get new students, and raise more money: nobody’s been that unfussed about attrition rates since the WW1 generals.

So universities aren’t only broken because they are tricking undergraduate kids into debt with the promise that “If you DON’T go to college, you’ll be flipping burgers at McDonalds”, they’re also so fundamentally broken in terms of their junior talent recruitment (grad school), that the talent levels among university staff are much, MUCH lower than they should be to justify that expense. It’s not because decent, creative people who could be great teachers and researchers don’t WANT to do those jobs, even knowing full well that they’re not going be making masses of cash – it’s because the system’s so broken that it’s an accident if one of those people gets the qualification required to get through. And the way the student loan/payment system works has a lot to do with that too. So yeah – it’s broken, alright.

Comment by Ella

i fucking hate all the superficial answers people write on this shitty blog. dont know who you are ella, but i fucking like you. or at least your pissed off, bitter anger. nice.

Comment by andy@cynic

Hello Ella – I thought you had more taste than to come on here, especially to write such a powerful [and long] response.

I don’t really know what to add because you’ve covered everything and done it in a more empassioned way than I could ever do it.

So hello. And keep up the fight.

Comment by Rob

Vile educational profiteering.

my current least favourite sight is of parents turning themselves inside out to justify sending their offspring to the glitziest, fee demanding institution they can find.

The excuses and post rationalisations should be the envy of the Persuasive Industries, not least as it often requires them to construct a rosy (and most probably highly counterfactual) view of their own experience.

Comment by Chris

This stuff makes me too angry to say anything sensible.
But what also irks me is the hypocrisy of successive UK governments saying ‘The answer is university, what’s the question’
Some people are not cut out for higher education, but that doesn’t mean they’re inferior, it just means they’re different. Apprenticeships as opposed to internships (otherwise known as acceptable slave labour) don’t really exist anymore.
Yet when I look at graduates that (amazinly) ask me for advice and stuff, I see people that know everything and understand nothing, next to some people who somehow came into agencies as runners or production lackeys and were given the opportunity to work their way up.
Anyway, what scares me the most is the insistence that knowledge and learning are not ends themselves, rather than delivering ‘value’ to the economy.

Comment by northern

I still remember when I started at HHCL. Apart from the fact my job title was basically ‘sponge’, I distinctly remember saying to me:

“One day you will get paid for your opinion. Our job is to fill your brain with views and experiences that will help you have one”.

A real “apprenticeship” … though the amount of money they paid me in the first 2 years means it could have been mistaken for ‘Bob-a-job’ week.

Comment by Rob

Oh, to finish the hypocrisy bit, the governments then make it harder for anyone from well off backgrounds to go.

Comment by northern

Maybe when we get a Prime Minister who wasn’t educated privately and went to University outside Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh we might get a different perspective.

NP’s point on apprenticeships is very true too.

Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

A long time ago I said that it might be interesting if Government had to sit in a different city every year.

I know it’s not practical, but seeing how people in – say Hull – live, might give our leaders a very different perspective of what real life is compared to what they see in their occasionally visited and always curated constituencies ‘back home.’

Of course not all ministers are bad, but where education is concerned, far too many decisions are.

Comment by Rob

In the case of Cameron I don’t think he would care. Also I’m pretty sure he thinks the world ends at Cambridge.

Would be a great idea, of course if the politicians elected to represent those areas did a better job…

The UK map that showed Tory spending cuts vs levels of deprevation was fascinating. If you live in the north AND a poor area you were much more likely to have cutbacks.

All animals are in this together, but some are more in this together than others – it seems.

Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

hi! obviously this is a topic also close to my heart.

university is the place to acquire knowledge. it is a place to research, read, develop habit of search and inquiry – broad knowledge about the background and history of particular areas.

it is not the place to acquire specific training or vocational understanding about ‘industry’. that is the role of the workplace.

yet it is the business sector/the workplace that is deciding that everyone needs a degree specific to the role in order to be hired.

so if everyone from business is whinging ‘my grad students don’t know how to work!’, then of course the universities (who are the bain of a conservative governments budget) have been pandering to that and switching to a vocational model in a codependent attempt to prove their worth.

the primary benchmark of whether grads ‘know stuff’ is currently coming from the work place (not the greater society, or the grads themselves), so of course the university system is fucked.

university students shouldn’t know how to ‘work’. they should know how to be curious, to read and write essays and research complex problems. they should know how to find and impart knowledge. these are qualities that are long-lasting and not always best served by the young.

and, by doing things and working in the workplace, they’ll be qualities that will probably translate into understanding and probably having good workers.

but they are two different outcomes that business and economics have tried to squish into the one thing to save money and time and effort.

the right to be employed is universal. the right to education is universal. they’re two different rights that cannot substituted for the other.

i don’t know if that makes sense, but the short version is: it’s not just universities and government’s faults that the university system is fucked.

Comment by lauren


Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

Lauren’s mention of essays reminded me that too much “work” today looks like essay writing rather than distillation, presription and action. I guess that’s what happens in an age of innumeracy and over-speialisation

Comment by John

[…] a massive fan of education but as I’ve written many times before [ie: here, here and here] they’ve gone from being a place for learning, debate and discussion, to being a place that […]

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