Is ‘Education, Education, Education’ really the answer to the world’s problems? A response to Kezia Dugdale

Ben Wray, head of policy & research at Common Weal, reviews a recent article by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale after her recent trip to Washington, where she identified investing in education as the key to challenging right-wing populism. Wray argues a generation of Scottish politicians brought up on a diet of ‘Education, Education, Education’ need to go back to school

WHAT is happening to the world? More and more people are asking that question after Brexit. When one looks across the Atlantic to see the real possibility of a Donald Trump ascendency to the White House, it focuses the mind.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has tried to provide answers in an STV column, after a visit last month to Washington.

“Politicians in all parties and in all countries must seriously address the underlying causes of the populism that is sweeping the world,” she said. “At the heart of that must be investing in education.”

In developing her idea, Dugdale identified North Sea oil workers as exemplar of why education holds the key. It’s worth quoting her comments in full.

“Those workers who have been on the rigs for years, doing the only thing they know and working in the only role they have been trained for, now need to be re-skilled so they can embark on a second career,” she said.

“Market forces have turned their world upside down, and only greater investment in their education and training will give them any sense of control over their lives.

“We must act now to ensure that the next generation are better placed to meet the challenges of globalisation than their parents and grandparents.”

“Dugdale’s analysis puts the cart before the horse: skills fit round the labour market, not visa-versa. It’s the economy that needs to be changed to provide the likes of North Sea oil workers with jobs for the future.”

The best that can be said for this is that it certainly isn’t populist; I’ll leave it to North Sea oil workers to decide whether they should thank Dugdale for saying that their advanced engineering skills aren’t good enough for the modern world.

Dugdale’s analysis puts the cart before the horse: skills fit round the labour market, not visa-versa. It’s the economy that needs to be changed to provide the likes of North Sea oil workers with jobs for the future.

More broadly, the idea that greater education can solve the world’s problems isn’t borne out by the facts: the world has never had more graduates, and never had a bigger problem with graduate unemployment.

A study in 2014 found that nearly 40 per cent of UK graduates are still looking for work six months after graduating. An ONS study showed that 47 per cent were working in jobs that did not require a degree.

‘In lieu of an effective strategy to increase the total number of skilled jobs in the economy, the improvement of skills can become a “zero sum game” where “one person’s upward mobility [needs] to be counter-balanced by another’s downward mobility”.’

The intellectual roots of Dugdale’s confusion can be found in the early days of New Labour. When Tony Blair made his ‘Education, Education, Education’ speech in 1997 it fit with the times. The forward march of globalisation seemed unstoppable and it appeared to be pointless to try to get in its way. Better to adapt.

For a generation of politicians that have grown up on a diet of Blairism, skills was the ultimate panacea because, as one report by two representatives of the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance described it, “it is seen as one of the few avenues for government intervention that can, within a neo-liberal paradigm, be depicted as being both ideologically neutral and unthreatening to vested interests.”

The report goes on:  “Skills are thus the first and often the only resort because this approach excuses government from acknowledging and addressing issues such as ownership structures, product market strategies, work organisation, job design, employee relations, patterns of innovation, property rights, corporate governance regimes, or wider investment patterns.”

In lieu of an effective strategy to increase the total number of skilled jobs in the economy, the improvement of skills can become a “zero sum game” where “one person’s upward mobility [needs] to be counter-balanced by another’s downward mobility”. In a world where automation threatens the future employment of millions, these are not problems to be dismissed easily.

‘Dugdale is right to say education can and should improve, but laying the future of humanity at its door is burdening it with tasks it can’t achieve. As sociologist Basil Bernstein famously said, “education cannot compensate for society”.’ 

The myths of Blairism should have been resolutely dumped after the 2008 Great Recession. The crisis exposed financialised capitalism: boom and bust was not over and ever greater living standards was (for most) a fantasy. Furthermore, it showed that direct government intervention in the economy was not a thing of the past – indeed, it was essential.

The perpetrators of the crash were considered to be the most educated people in the world. Almost all of the CEO’s of the world’s biggest banks came from Ivy League schools. All of that education didn’t change the fact that they were at the helm of an out of control financial system that threw millions on the scrapheap.

Dugdale is right to say education can and should improve, but laying the future of humanity at its door is burdening it with tasks it can’t achieve. As sociologist Basil Bernstein famously said, “education cannot compensate for society”.

Of course Dugdale is not the only Scottish politician to be caught in the education myopia. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has premised the SNP Government’s next five years on turning round ‘the attainment gap’ in education.

A worthy cause, to be sure. But one that can’t seriously be tackled without getting a grip on our chronic economic problems. As one education expert told me, “you can’t even start to address the attainment gap until you start tackling income and wealth inequality”.

We shouldn’t be too surprised that the two main forces of Scottish social democracy share similar intellectual inadequacies: after all, Dugdale was joined on her Washington jaunt by Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd. The assumptions of the liberal elite across the Atlantic are deeply embedded but it doesn’t make them any less misplaced, even in terms of realpolitik: a consistent trend across the West is for politicians who have offered up re-heated Blairism to electorates’ post-2008 to bite the dust, opening up space for the Trump’s of this world.

“Questions need to be asked that cut deeper than what is too often a superficial political culture: can we have “inclusive growth”, as the Scottish Government put it, with such a huge and increasing amount of the economy owned in private hands?”

There’s obvious reasons why the SNP have not suffered that particular fate, but if Scotland is to become an independent country they will be forced to face all the hitherto challenges nation-states face everywhere.

Questions need to be asked that cut deeper than what is too often a superficial political culture: can we have “inclusive growth”, as the Scottish Government put it, with such a huge and increasing amount of the economy owned in private hands? Should we not be considering how “market forces”, which Dugdale treats as immutable, can be controlled and regulated in this new world where, as many economists believe, negative interest rates are the start of a move towards currency wars and competitive devaluations? And how does government ensure “social justice” if the private banking system, which has added an extra £37 trillion of private debt worldwide since 2007, leaves particularly the young in a lifetime of debt penury?

Continuing the neoliberal politics of adapting to the economy - rather than trying to change it - is a bit like trying to fit new seats into a car that has no engine. Some politicians of the left are adapting. Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has brought forward a plan for £500billion in public investment. Others, whose political education does not reach beyond the Blair years, need to go back to school.