How much education is enough?

Nobody knows how educated a society needs to be. Obviously a world of satellites and open-heart surgery needs more graduates than one of flint hand-axes and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But how many more? In East Asia, there seems to be a strong argument that Japan’s spending on research, and to some extent the expansion of its university system, followed the nation’s postwar economic renaissance rather than driving it. The same goes (20 years later) for Korea.

The sheer amount of advanced education now going on in the world is easy to underestimate. The OECD points to UNESCO data (page 364, since you ask) suggesting that in 2010, there were 177 million university students, up from 100 million in 2000. It adds helpfully that this is a 77 per cent increase. Within this number there were over 4 million studying outside their home nation.

Now, 177 million students out of about seven billion people looks like a lot. However, there is no global person-power planning authority. Instead, people get educated to get ahead or out of interest, according to taste, and their propensity to do so has a lot to do with national policies and national states of economic development.

Now there seems to be some fresh light on this debate. One problem is that most information on student numbers is about higher education and universities. These have more prestige and are a comparatively simple target for data collection. But a UK consultancy called The Research Base has just published global figures for numbers in both academic and vocational education, drawing on a wide range of sources such as Unesco,

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the World Bank and the UN Development Programme.

Its new report, The Education Advantage suggests that vocational study, in particular, is on the way up in the developing world. Numbers in vocational education have been on the way down in central Asia and in central and Eastern Europe, suggesting that there is a dearth of economic activity to attract people into vocation-based training. Policymakers there might well find this ominous. Despite political enthusiasm for vocational training, numbers are also static in Western Europe, the US and Canada. But there is big growth in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and most of all, in an arc from Iran (all those nuclear technicians, no doubt) to India, where annual growth rates of 41 per cent have been observed. And its main author, Matilda Gosling, points to strong links between this type of growth and economic development.

Nothing can grow at 41 per cent a year for long. But the clear message is that developing nations with growing economies are also growing their skills base.

A look at the figures for university-type education tells a different but related tale. Again we see falling numbers in Eastern and central Europe and in central Asia, but this time there is a slight growth story in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Again, South and West Asia have big growth, at 12 per cent, but this time it is Sub-Saharan Africa, with 16 per cent annual growth, that is expanding fastest. This must have something to do with Africa’s fast-growing middle class.

Does this suggest that these nations are positioning themselves to overtake older and more comfortable competitors? I think not. More likely, these big numbers suggest a catch-up phase that will run its course. But there is a

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of effort and untold amounts of money to get their kids into university. University enrolments there have been on the up while vocational numbers have been falling. Maybe as the realisation grows that families have been beggaring themselves for little return, Koreans and other very big higher education enthusiasts will look for new models.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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