Are university degree-holders really part of an elite any more?
“Elite overproduction”, which Conservative MP Miriam Cates bemoaned in a recent article for the Daily Telegraph, can be a misleading phrase. After all, it is hard to see how a society could suffer from a surfeit of very able people.
Of course, it makes more sense in its original context. Peter Turchin, who coined the term, explained in an interview with UnHerd that it really refers to overproduction of “elite aspirants”: people who want, and expect, to gain an elite position, but for whom there are insufficient positions available.
Crucially, this definition of “elite” refers purely to status, not ability. It has nothing to say about the character or calibre of the people at the top of the pyramid, or if the process for replenishing their number selects for good characteristics.
Looking at our ever-expanding mediocrat class and its mounting pile of failures, one might argue Britain actually suffers from elite underproduction: either our system produces too few who merit the label “elite”, or it at least keeps them out of public life.
That this should cause problems is much more intuitive: there is nothing more dangerous than a downwardly mobile middle class, whose members have both stronger habits of political organisation and more resources committed to their cause.
In Britain, the most obvious vector for this phenomenon was Tony Blair’s massive expansion of tertiary education. Ever since he first declared his aspiration for 50% of school leavers to go to university, we have funnelled ever more young people into them. This has “shifted the UK to the Left”, as the Telegraph puts it (and as New Labour advisers privately admit was always the intention).
But Cates’s focus on graduates adopting “high-status opinions” misses this initiative’s most damaging effect: the way in which society and the economy have adjusted to artificially inflate the value of degrees.
Many employers now use a 2:1 as a first-stage filter on job applications, even for roles which a generation ago would have been open to school leavers. This locks young people into a vicious cycle, forced onto the higher education debt treadmill just to stand still in economic terms. Not only do they end up effectively paying usurious marginal tax rates due to loan repayments, but it also delays their entry into the world of work by at least three years.
Flat wage growth, not to mention both house prices and rents climbing remorselessly, in turn delays their getting on the housing ladder, or acquiring capital of any sort, by even longer — trapping these people in a twilight late adolescence into their thirties.
Deprived of the opportunity to mature into adulthood, they don’t. Instead of combatting this, British institutions have indulged it. The Government recently faced calls to ban under-25s from carrying passengers in their cars; more seriously, the Scottish Sentencing Council recommends lenient treatment for even serious criminals below that age because “the brain is not fully developed”.
Britain does not have a surplus of elites, then, but instead a surplus of adolescents. All the while, the remorseless march of the degree continues. In the face of a childcare cost crisis, Labour’s Bridget Phillipson proposes to make looking after pre-school-age children a graduate profession. It was only in November that Home Secretary Suella Braverman axed plans to require all police officers to have degrees.
Universities are not geared towards the economy. That’s why we have at once a record number of graduates and a skills crisis. The easiest way to palliate their discontent has been to create passably paid, high-status, low-accountability white-collar jobs in the public sector. What do many of those people do? Generate and service the vast amount of paperwork it takes to do anything productive. Which, in the long run, makes the economic situation even worse.