Tel: 0345 644 8955 (TPS Registered)

Can You Have Too Much Education?

The received wisdom is that you can never have too much education, but is that always true? I’m not so sure. Education should at the very least provide students with the skills and information they need for their working and wider life. Ideally, education will also help students to develop a questioning outlook that encourages them to keep learning and developing long after they have finished their last exam.

The poet W B Yeats said: Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire. Great words that resonate with me, but all too often it seems that the fire is not lit, nor is the bucket filled. In 2013 McKinsey researched the careers of recent US graduates and published the following figures.

  • 48% of employed graduates are in jobs that don’t need a four-year degree.
  • 42% of visual and performing arts students said college didn’t prepare them for employment.
  • The average 2013 college graduates owe $35,200 in debt (and will probably be paying it off in a job they dislike).
  • Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned –because it’s the only work they could find.
  • 284,000 of college graduates will be working minimum wage jobs – like flipping burgers.
  • 75% of people say they aren’t living up to their creative potential.
  • 70-80% of workers are actively disengaged and don’t enjoy the work they do.

While the research was carried out in the US, the findings echo the experiences of UK graduates.

I’ve come to the conclusion that while developing a thirst for knowledge is generally heathy, that for some – perhaps many- students, getting a formal higher education qualification has no value. That may be in part because the market for that particular skill area is over-subscribed (just how many media graduates do you think the UK wants and needs?),but in part there are too many graduates who aren’t intellectually capable. In consequence the courses are dumbed down to accommodate them.

Diluting complex technical training to accommodate weak students is pointless and has a predictable negative knock on effect in the workplace. Economic historian Dr Richard Vedder says: “The number going to college exceeds the number capable of mastering higher levels of intellectual inquiry. This leads colleges to alter their mission, watering down the intellectual content of what they do.”

Research suggests that only a fairly limited number of students have the cognitive skills, work ethic and motivation to be able to achieve higher education. Well-educated people should be able to demonstrate rigorous analytical thinking in a sustained basis. It’s very clear to UK employers that the number of graduates fitting that description is severely limited.

Instead Dr Vedder and others report that education is not stretching, exercising and refining our undergraduates. Writer Charles Murray found that in the first two years of their degree, 45% of a group of students surveyed showed no significant improvement in a range of skills, including critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing.

It may also be because education bores the pants off many students while feeding their entirely incorrect view that having a degree makes them more employable (how I wish I was wrong about that last statement). A degree per se doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to me.

Students don’t have to have a university education to succeed in working life. In our Build and Fly Your Own Rocket programme for schools, I always recommend that if they’re going to spend time at university do something that they enjoy and have the intellectual capacity to do, but also that has good transferable value. Even in good times, very few artists make any sort of living. In bad times it’s impossible. In other words, don’t follow your star if it puts you in serious debt and there is no prospect of ever being able to earn a living.

The really important things for today’s students to grasp is that by the time they are ready to enter the workplace they have achieved a good basic educational standard and be prepared to learn, read, ask and keep questioning. That’s what employers want and any student who can really demonstrate he or she has achieved it will be snapped up.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

Subscribe to our free monthly HR newsletter. Russell HR Consulting employment law newsletters are emailed automatically to our ever-growing number of subscribers every month.

Got any HR queries?

Contact us