Democracy, meritocracy, and the rise of higher education (a review of Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of Meritocracy)

Peter Mandler’s title, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, led me to expect another, yet another, critique of allocating too much status, power and wealth on the basis of academic ability. But Mandler’s book is much more interesting than that. It is a rich history of post-WW2 education in Britain, highlighting how public attitudes and public policy interact, with neither ever fully controlling the other.

Meritocracy’s original antonym was aristocracy or other class-based systems of allocation. It aimed to restrict the role of inherited privilege in distributing social goods for which ability is relevant. Meritocracy matches people with education and jobs based on their demonstrated skill, achievement, or evidence-supported potential. This version of meritocracy remains commonly accepted, despite disagreements over exactly what counts as merit and how much other criteria should influence merit-based decisions.

Although meritocratic practices increased the average competence of workers, hopes that meritocracy would create a more egalitarian society have not been fulfilled. Mandler cites the early 20th century Christian socialist RH Tawney’s belief that, due to God’s providence, ability was randomly spread. If that was so, meritocracy would over a few generations dissolve the associations between family background and life outcomes.

Social science research, reported on in Mandler’s book, shows that at the individual level the expansion of education in Britain after WW2 contributed to upwards social mobility for many working class people. But while cognitive ability is more widely distributed than birth into Britain’s most prestigious and powerful families, it is far from equally spread. Upper and middle class students dominate the top levels of academic performance. They convert strong school and university results into a large share of the highest-status and best-paid jobs.

This still-powerful link between family background and life prospects is why most of the thinkers who have written about meritocracy, including the writer who coined the term in the 1950s, don’t like it much. If anything, on one line of argument, meritocracy is worse than aristocracy. It replaces one accident of birth, family lineage, with another accident of birth, high intelligence, that has greater economic use and higher social standing. Meritocracy justifies inequalities in a way that the lingering institutions of aristocracy do not.

In Mandler’s analytical framework meritocracy’s antonym is no longer aristocracy but democracy. He means this broadly to describe the growing expectation after WW2 that the state would provide, or at least support, a wide range of social services, including education. Under the democratic welfare state, education would not be restricted to those who could afford it or just to the most academically able students.

A central argument of The Crisis of the Meritocracy is that rising democratic expectations of education are a powerful, and probably the most powerful over the longer term, force in education policy. I also believe that this is the case. A large and increasing proportion of parents want their children to get more education, and sooner or later each country’s political system finds a way for that to happen. Taking a global and long-run perspective, the common trend towards increasing educational participation and attainment is more striking than the detail of national educational policies at various times.

Seemingly inevitable long-run increases in education don’t make local debates irrelevant. These affect the timing and detail of the trend. Mandler notes the influence in policy circles of technocracy, which in education policy manifests itself in policies that try to manipulate student and educational institution behaviour to serve government priorities.

Technocratic approaches to higher education include attempts to steer enrolments towards courses governments believe will meet labour market needs or promote economic growth. These policies are often influenced by a ‘human capital’ understanding of education as an investment in future earning capacity, as well as a faith that STEM courses are a key to prosperity.

On their own terms, technocratic critiques of higher education enrolment patterns often have some validity. Many students take courses with a relatively high risk of not leading to jobs that normally require degrees (ironically, science courses are typically in the higher-risk category; Mandler is good on STEM mythology).

On Mandler’s account, however, job-prospect or income-maximising theories, although identifying one reason why enrolments have expanded over time, under-explain the choices students make. Students enter university without necessarily having clear or specific vocational goals. Interest in a field is almost always a major motivation, limiting the plausible range of course choices.

On top of what is learned in the classroom, being a university student has become an important life experience, something young people increasingly expect and are expected to have, and not just as a means to the end of a career. In economic language, education is a consumption as well as an investment good. Students resist undermining education’s consumption value to increase its investment returns.

The entrenchment of post-school education in the expectations of voters is the democratic pressure that ultimately leads to higher participation rates. But it co-exists with meritocracy, which still guides student selection in universities, and technocracy, which affects funding and financial incentives.

The British focus of The Crisis of the Meritocracy might limit its readership, but even as a foreign (Australian) reader I never lost interest. The details often differ from what happened in my country, but the thematic parallels are strong.

The book is also admirably multi-disciplinary. Mandler’s skill as an historian gives his argument a narrative pull that quantitative social scientists rarely bring to their writing, but he includes the work of sociologists and economists, whose surveys and statistics reveal patterns and trends that don’t neatly fit with the historian’s sequence of policy changes and events. The result is an account of education in Britain over the last 70 years that has lessons and insights for other places.

This review was originally published on GoodReads.

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