Everyone knows the vast majority of what you learn over the course of your education isn’t particularly useful afterwards. History grads and Chemistry grads go for the same graduate jobs, in spite of there being little overlap in what they have learned. Students cheer when classes are cancelled, despite paying for those very classes to happen. At a typical university, it would be almost comically easy to attend every lecture without ever paying a penny in tuition, and yet (almost) nobody does. The most parsimonious explanation for all this is that what you’re actually paying for isn’t the education, but the reliable signal that you were capable of getting through it, and there is a large literature on this very idea.
If we accept that this is the case, why doesn’t the form fit the function more closely? We could deal with the signalling function via a decent battery of IQ tests spaced out throughout the course, and maybe the odd 9am taking of attendance to show at least some level of commitment. This would be relatively cheap, and wouldn’t require three years of a young person’s life that they could otherwise spend on something more productive. One potential reason that this doesn’t happen is that young people want a licence to spend three years of their lives shielded from the real world. Drinking, partying and sleeping in until midday, while mummy and daddy are still inexplicably proud of them. Many people will talk about their time at university as the best of their lives, and one last blowout before the real world may well serve a worthwhile social function.
This, however, can’t be the whole story. It may explain why people want to persist with the university system, but doesn’t explain how it evolved in the first place in spite of on the surface seeming like a colossal waste of resources. I think the most likely explanation is that their real function is to transmit social values and behaviour down through the generations, specifically middle class, secular and liberal values. This isn’t just a moral responsibility, it is the entire point of the system.
The views and behaviour of educated people are very different from those who aren’t. For a recent example, consider the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Those who had no formal education voted 82% in favour of leaving, the most educated group voted 64% against. We know that our political beliefs have strong environmental determinants, but the behavioural genetics literature suggests that this is mainly not due to home environment. The most obvious cause is the education system. Even more broadly, education has a strong influence over family patterns. Worldwide and through history, more educated people have fewer children, later in life, and invest more resources into them. The education system also teaches students how to navigate the infinitely complex social codes of the British class system, all the way from dinner etiquette to holding political views well within the acceptable spectrum of opinion.
If education is to a large degree about transmitting social behaviour, it is interesting that there is not more variety in the behaviours that are transmitted, in spite of the many different cultures and viewpoints in our society. It is certainly the case that there are many faith schools which instil behaviours in students somewhat outside the norm, but outside of the realms of religion examples are harder to come by. Historically, University College London was seen as a secular alternative to the religious universities of the 19th century, but nowadays this has very little practical meaning. The School of Oriental and African Studies Studies and Goldsmiths are renowned for their radical left wing student politics, and attract the sorts of people interested in this, but the formal differences are really not that large.
This homogeneity of values may not be the case forever. Over the past few years we’ve seen university become increasingly marketised. Students are starting to pay for more of their own education, rather than have it funded by government. As it stands, this is still a fairly regulated market. Students almost all go through the official loans system, few providers enter or leave the market, and all courses cost the same. Competition for students is thus based mainly on location and academic prestige, with the fees cap low enough to discourage much price competition. The fee cap, however, is likely to be removed at some point (as per the Browne review), and we may well see new firms entering the market. In the face of extreme market forces, universities could focus on particular niches to exploit their comparative advantage. Not all students want to be instilled with the same values, and that’s completely ok, a market based system is well placed to provide this. The customer is always right, and at these prices the student is one hell of a customer. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Opportunities offered to and constraints imposed upon students could vary between institutions. In the States, there are plenty of colleges with strict honour codes for those who desire it. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney attended the largest, Brigham Young University. Mormon teachings are at the core of its mission, and as such it enforces chastity, a strict dress code, abstinence, attendance at church and a prohibition on foul language. This code is both official and unofficial. Students who sort themselves into such a place have chosen to live by it, and being surrounded by like minded people amplifies the effect.
This puts me in mind of the safe space debate currently occurring on campuses. There is a demand for colleges to instil some codes of social behaviour that is not currently being met. Would students agitating for this vote with their wallets, and pay to attend a university more in line with their beliefs if they had an option? Why not create an entire university that is safe? For chastity, read any form of sexual morality that takes your fancy. For dress code, why not ban distastful shirts? Lad culture could be curtailed by prohibiting the fraternities and sports teams that perpetuate it. Instead of church attendance, all students could attend mandatory workshops on a whole host of social and behavioural issues. Even the types of music that students play could vary. Again, this isn’t purely an official prohibition, institutions like this would attract people who want to go there, and the social norms that developed would be more suited to them.
Equally, some universities may well choose to present themselves in the opposite way. How about a place for students who hate all this social justice stuff? A university which was an explicitly ‘Dangerous Space’? Students could be encouraged to compete for who could be the most offensive. All staff members could wear t-shirts with misogynistic slogans on them. Compulsory internet harassment lessons on a Sunday morning. Let’s subsidise the student bar and hand out free roofies to anyone who comes in. That’ll show the PC brigade!
I’m not saying this solution is perfect, but it’s not obviously worse than what we have now. Keeping students with competing political views together is clearly causing conflict and upsetting a lot of them. Nobody seems particularly to be learning from this diversity of opinion, instead we have needless petty fights over what universal code of behaviour should be in place. What if there was no universal code at all? Those who want a wide body of opinion among their fellow students can go somewhere that has it, and those who want to behave like animals can find somewhere they are free to do so. There’s no threat to free speech here, everyone is free to go somewhere suited to their sensibilities. Maybe here, free markets are extremely well suited to the goals of social justice. A patchwork education system may be the answer.