Oversupply of the elites: The danger of too many university places

At Spectator blogs.

To take one example, cited by Bryan Caplan in his upcoming bookThe Case Against Education, the number of students earning communication or journalism degrees in a typical year in the US ‘exceeds total employment in print, web, and broadcast journalism’. It goes without saying that only a tiny number of these graduates will find jobs in this industry after university, and that the skills they learned will not be transferable.

Caplan’s main argument against education is that most of the benefits of university attendance are down to signalling; attending a three or four-year course signals to future employers that you have some degree of intelligence and resilience, but there are far easier, cheaper and quicker ways of doing this. And for society in general it leads to the problem of elite oversupply, the great theory of Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut. As Turchin points out:

‘Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.’

This results in a number of angry, aggrieved graduates unable to find the positions they feel their education warrants, as well as not being able to afford the housing and financial stability necessary for family formation. They become like a sort of gender-neutral ‘bare branches’ of the 21st century.

In the west today there are two sections of society driving political polarisation: a working-class opposed to multiculturalism who are moving from the left to the radical right; and middle-class graduates enraged at being left behind by the super-rich, and attracted to Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and others on the radical left. As long as huge numbers attend university courses that provide few material rewards there will be an inexhaustible supply of the latter.

Read it all there.

Comments so far

  1. I would add that the QE programme and low-interest rate environment designed to save the financial sector (in reality the over-extended sovereign entities) has pushed up asset prices such as housing thus putting home formation out of reach for a generation. People can always retrain or endure lower wages but with key assets out of synch with the essentially deflationary environment it is futile, this is a major problem in the making. As you say, due to educational failures the two sides cannot agree on a solution.

What do you think?