Market madness #5 Qualifications as currency

A series of short posts about the marketisation of public education: #5 Qualifications as currency.

All economies need a currency which we all use to represent the value we give to things and which can be exchanged for real things. A currency allows us to convert labour into goods or capital and back again.

In a credentialised education economy, qualifications are effectively the currency. They represent an investment of effort and commitment to acquire knowledge and skill to a certain level and they can be traded in the labour market for access to further educational and job opportunities. More currency equals a greater chance of success and understandably everyone one wants more of that.

Individuals are judged by the qualfications they have obtained and there is a strong correlation between the highest level of qualification achieved and lifetime earnings.

Education providers are also judged by the volume and type of qualifications their students obtain. For example, A-level grades can be converted to points making it easy to quantify the value of qualifications from A* to E. There is also considerable differentiation, with facilitating A-levels at the high-value end of the market and vocational qualifications in the bargain basement. In fact, despite having a UCAS tariff, these qualifications are not even the same currency at all in some markets, such as the performance tables.

So, as well as students themselves being judged by qualification measures, schools and colleges can be ranked by the volume and value of the qualifications they provide to their students. And as riches beget riches, the tendency is for those that have to attract more. This is true at the student level where those most likely to do well at one level are those who have already demonstrated the ability to do well at the level below. It is also true at the institutional level where attracting already successful students is the best guarantee of greater success.

As with the profit motive in the financial economy there is a real danger that the rush to accumulate currency takes precedence over the real productive and sustainable value of economic activity. Labour simply becomes a means of earning money and capital a means of accumulating more wealth with little thought given to human values and social purpose. Equally, with qualifications, we risk seeing the qualification as the goal rather than valuing the learning which it symbolises.

Also, the value of a qualification, like that of any currency, is affected by its supply or scarcity. The more common it is, the less value it has, leading to a recalibration of the currency’s value – devaluing it and sending people scurrying to look for a better, scarcer and therefore more valuable qualification.

Where being qualified and therefore ‘educated’ is a positional good we live with the paradox that the more skilled and qualified we all become, the lower the value of our qualifications – in effect we have to run faster to stand still.

One solution is to ration the supply of high grades to a fixed amount or to recalibrate upwards by constantly making qualifications ‘harder’. This preserves the inequalities inherent in the system and does nothing to recognise the real educational progress being made. Such economic solutions devalue our educational objectives.

Is it possible to imagine a different system? One where learning and demonstrating skill are valued without requiring constant measurement and comparison? Could we find ways to lift those learners who have least access to the all-important currency and help them achieve an agreed national threshold? Could we learn to celebrate learning and achievement without the need to endlessly rank and classify learners? Could we decouple education from the market?


All the Market Madness posts:

Market madness #1 Oversubscribed?

Market madness #2 “Choice and diversity”

Market madness #3 The well-informed educational consumer

Market madness #4 A good system can help schools improve

Market madness #5 Qualifications as currency

Market madness #6 Students as commodities: premium, discount and remaindered

Market madness #7 What markets do to us

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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