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Is Education the Answer

November 30th, 2015

Martin Ford has recently written a piece on Linkedin Pulse pointing out that education is not an adequate defense against the rise of the robots. Ford is the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books), winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award 2015. He is the founder of a Silicon Valley–based software development firm and has over twenty-five years of experience in computer design and software development. His book, together with Jerry Kaplan’s Humans need not apply (Yale University Press) also on robots and future jobs were reviewed in The Guardian in October.

Ford observes, “The conventional wisdom has long been that the solution to technology-driven job losses is invariably more education and vocational training. As machines and smart software eat away at low-skill jobs, workers are urged to retool themselves and continuously climb the skills ladder, taking on roles that are beyond the reach of automation”. However, rather than college graduates being inundated with opportunity employment prospects are in collapse: incomes for young workers with bachelor’s degrees declined by 15 percent from 2000 through 2010, as many as half of new college graduates are in jobs which do not use their educational qualifications. A 2013 paper by University of British Columbia’s Paul Beaudry and colleagues found demand for skilled labor in the United States peaked in 2000 and has declined since.

One of the really critical points is that it is easier to automate information-based tasks held by white-collar workers than lower wage positions which require physical manipulation. And “only a minority of people have the cognitive capability and motivation necessary to excel in technical fields”.

Ford concludes, “The hard truth is that the traditional solution to unemployment and poverty—and the solution that nearly all analysts and policy makers continue to support—is not going to be sufficient in the robotic age. Education has incalculable value both on a personal level, and as a public good that benefits society as a whole. For those reasons, we should continue to strongly support it and invest in it. We should not, however, expect ever more schooling to assure workers a foothold in the future economy.”


Ford makes appropriate observations. But it should also be noted that the evidence, set out for instance by Michael Teitelbaum, is that underemployment of graduates is significantly influenced by the tendency of firms, in the US at least, to employ non-native graduates from run of the mill universities at low salaries in preference to American-born graduates of the top universities. This is insidious.

It is also important to note that the rising incomes of graduates reflect the fact that fewer young people are attending universities so that for certain jobs, firms are having to pay higher salaries; that is the well-known study by Goldin & Katz. The imposition of university fees is leaving graduates with debt that can never be repaid, rather like the stranded assets of energy companies.

An important point relevant to school education and the obsession with accountability is the fact that there is little correlation between test scores at school and future employment levels. University of Chicago’s James Heckman and colleagues have pointed out that rewarding teachers  on the basis of their student’s test scores risks misallocation of resources

Recent reviews by Simon Marginson (in SRHE 50th Anniversary Colloquium, 26 June 2015 Valuing Research into Higher Education The Landscape of Higher Education Research 1965-2015: “Equality of Opportunity: The first fifty years”), now of University College London, and Director of American Studies at Columbia University Andrew Delbanco in the July 9 2015 issue of New York Review of Books, have recently pointed out, too often universities do not enrol students on merit but choose them from more prestigious colleges: access is decreasing as quality of teaching declines and fees increase.

The contribution of education to overcoming perceived problems is frequently overstated. Those committed to the market economic model and small government (“get the government out of the way and the economy will flourish”) favour this which in essence is an excuse since it relies on the proposition that the market will sort things out ignoring the tendency of larger firms to manipulate the market to favour themselves.

The last 40 years have seen not just a diminution in the valuing of education but a downsizing of any commitment to quality in government and business, the profits returned by downsizing employment and retrenchments in the public service accruing to the already advantaged whilst the general public are left floundering and the quality of governance declines to alarming levels, as the AFR’s Laura Tingle points out in her recent Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern. Not only is there less skill brought to bear but few people remaining in employment in government can remember anything and the media which has such an influence on general public perception also lack memory: who was Bob Hawke?

The contribution of government to the community warrants substantial re-examination. In Governomics: can we afford small government Ian McAuley and Miriam Lyons (2015) write, “In the din of political slogans about the supposed need to cut public expenditure it is easy to lose sight of the sound economic reasons for investing in public education, for resisting the sell-off of public assets, for taking strong action on climate change, for public funding of health care, for regulating to protect safety standards, for providing decent support for aged pensioners and the unemployed, for allowing modest levels of public debt, and for collecting enough tax to fund these services.”

There needs to be much closer consideration of the nature of the jobs that would seem to qualify for improved efficiency through application of artificial intelligence to ensure quality is not lost. Major candidates are the health and education sectors. The error rate in illness diagnosis would seem to merit closer consideration and delivery of educational instruction through electronic media does not constitute learning. The proposition that journalism can get by with the application of algorithms is highly suspect. Most of the stuff produced is boring: compare the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, the BBC and ABC with the daily trash coming from tabloid media, which are no more than vehicles to generate profits through advertising stuff no-one wants but believe they have to buy so they can impress people they don’t know.

The Australian Government policy on Innovation, announced  7 December 2015 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, included funding to train young students in coding. Is coding that important? Or is the really important skill we should concentrate on something else: the ability to think? Consider the huge but seldom explored area of cyber security. There are implications well beyond how to write computer programs which underlie what we really should be concerned about when we consider job futures, let alone the last 30 years of obsession with efficiency and accountability.

Consider this statement in the ABC RN Future Tense program on “the Wild West of online security” by one of the participants who, talking about software development, said: “the fact of it is just building an application that does what it’s meant to is difficult enough. Building it in a way that it’s not doing all the things that it shouldn’t do, as well as doing the things that it should do is even harder“. If the quality of education is assessed through standardised testing and whether frequently used words can be correctly spelled by teachers, something that gained a lot of media attention in early December 2015, we are simply not addressing the real problems of the future.

Oh and by the way, the decision to encourage private providers to offer vocational education courses has led to quite a large number of very dodgy persons employing other persons to go around offering great benefits to enroll in their courses if only they would sign up and get rewards like a free lap top computer. The ACCC is investigating them. Instead of closing them down, the government is formulating new rules. Doesn’t really get to the problem. Competition does not always improve quality and often leads to nothing more than rorts.

There is plenty of work but few jobs – writer Elizabeth Jolley pointed that out – because those with influence won’t pay the costs of the benefits which would accrue to the community and, in Australia certainly, politicians lack the ability to intellectually manage issues of debt, future benefit and risk. Governments are still hell-bent on selling off state assets so they can fund infrastructure developed by private interests at higher costs than would be incurred were governments themselves to undertake and fund the work. In most parts of Australia primary roads are hardly up to the standard of minor roads in western Europe.

Distinguished accountants such as the University of Sydney’s Bob Walker, economists such as Professor John Quiggin and economic journalists such as Tim Colebatch and Peter Martin have taken this issue up. But governments continue blindly on whilst proclaiming they are looking after the taxpayer’s money. Alan Kohler recently observed “Most of the transport challenges in Melbourne and Sydney have to do with compensating for the absence of adequate underground public transport, apart from a single loop in each city”. The relevance is that infrastructure projects contribute to productivity and to employment!

The quality of performance achieved by the more roboticised firms and other sectors including health and education is worse, not better. But hey, who cares! It’s the economy stupid!

These issues are taken up in a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales dealing with a recent “Four Academies Forum” with other learned societies on the future of jobs. Here it is: . ISSN 0035-9173/15/020166-10 166 “The Future of Jobs: Reflections on the Royal Society of New South Wales and Four Academies Forum” (Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 2015, vol. 148, nos. 457 & 458, pp. 166-175)


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