Common or uncommon sense?

The Washington Post ran a big piece yesterday contrasting the expansion ambitions of HEI systems in New York state and in California, with the gridlock on higher education expansion experienced in Washington. The unquestioned assumption in the WP, however, is that expansion is a good thing: that future economic development depends upon an ever larger provision of degree-educated workers. The Presidency agrees, but getting anything done in Washington is like pulling teeth — on a really annoyed, rabid dog.

But it is just this assumption that is being questioned, from both right and left. Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and the nation’s favourite liberal economist, argues that recent evidence suggests graduate-level employment may have plateaued, in part because automation can deal with sophisticated, graduate-level tasks much more easily than it can with skilled but ‘common sense’ tasks, like installing an air conditioner or pruning a pear tree. Interestingly, an opinion piece in Forbes agrees. Both conclude that tackling income inequality through higher education is a mistake.

The UK experiment with vastly expanded higher education provision would seem to be relevant here. Are graduate level jobs holding up, and graduate level unemployment staying low? Another, very different question arises, the answer to which everyone above just assumes: is access to higher education only about the economy? Even in the domain of equality (see the immediately previous post), is income equality the only measure?

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