Hamish McRae: What's the true purpose of learning?

'Many people are seeking education as a good in itself rather than as some sort of career-enhancing move'
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The Independent Online

The wheel is coming full circle. A generation ago Pink Floyd's groundbreaking album The Wall had children singing: "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control." Now the better-than-ever A-level results last week and the GCSEs out this Thursday have become headline news.

Of course there are the usual batch of "grade inflation" worries. Of course, sadly, there are still many schools where children are not getting nearly as good an education as they should. Measured internationally, UK school performance, while apparently rising slowly, seems to be a bit below the average for developed nations.

And of course there are now worries about lack of demand for university places. Last year there were 10,000 excess places and – since the number of students taking A-levels fell by 23,000 this year – we can expect even greater oversupply now.

So there are still many obvious problems with both the quality of school system and the appropriateness of the university one. But the mood is quite different from the Pink Floyd era: results matter. The Government's relentless focus on testing in education (and its enemies might add its efforts at "thought control") is testimony to that. As a society, we clearly want more and better education, and the Government has been forced to respond to those demands.

But the debates about standards, failing schools, struggling universities and so on are really sideshows to four seismic changes taking place in education worldwide. Education is moving from being supply-led to demand-driven; from one-shot to continuous; from national to international; and from public-sector to private.

Supply-led to demand-driven? The point is simply that people are, to a much greater extent than ever before, choosing to learn what they want to learn, rather than being forced to learn what the education establishment wants to teach them.

Sure, there are and always will be children who, as Shakespeare noted, are "creeping like a snail unwillingly to school". Thank heavens for that: the new earnestness needs a bit of tempering. But if you look at education as a whole, much less of what we learn – and where we learn it – is determined by educational establishments and much more by students.

There are a host of examples of changes in education that illustrate one or more of these shifts. Look at languages. In Britain there has been a slump in the numbers of people learning foreign languages, including mainstream European ones: some, like Italian, are in dramatic decline. In one sense this is terrible, for culturally we will be the poorer. But this is the choice people are making.

At the same time there has been a surge in language schools in the UK – the ones teaching English to foreigners. Young Europeans realise that good command of English adds to their job opportunities, so they come here to learn it. I have read that it typically adds 20 per cent to their earnings, so there is a direct financial benefit.

This changes the structure of our education industry. Universities are finding it hard to fill places in their language departments and are having to run them down. Meanwhile language schools (often in the private sector) are flooded with applicants and are growing rapidly.

So, what is happening to language teaching shows not only the power of demand but also the shift from national to international (we are teaching foreigners a language, not Britons) and from public to private.

The best example of the shift from one-shot to continuous is the new technologies. Every time new technology arrives we have to learn how to use it, so we have to add to our skills throughout our lives rather than relying on a body of knowledge that we acquired at school and university.

A decade ago people did not need to know how to navigate their way around the Internet. In fact, many people did not even need to know how to use a keyboard. Now newly-retired senior executives, who have had secretaries all their careers, are suddenly having to learn to type.

But to learn to surf the net (or even to type) you probably don't need to go to a night class at the local poly. For most people, the learning process is taking place at their own computer, rather than in the classroom. They get a disk from the company selling the Internet connection with a tutorial on it about the Internet, and as for the typing – well, there is nothing wrong with two fingers and a spellcheck.

Perhaps the sharpest example of the shift both from national to international and government to private sector lies in the way that business skills are taught. The London Business School (LBS) has just scored a coup in hiring Laura Tyson, former adviser to President Clinton, as its new dean. The LBS, along with INSEAD in France and IMD in Switzerland, is one of the three non-American members of the world-premier division of business schools. Most British universities are worrying about cutbacks to public spending, but the LBS is surging ahead. It gets only 6 per cent of its funding from the British government and, naturally, an unusually large proportion of its students from overseas. But the key point is that it thinks globally: it is challenging the worldwide dominance of business teaching held at the moment by American institutions.

There is, by the way, not just a monetary justification for welcoming this, the bringing of educational activity to the UK. There is also a powerful intellectual case for welcoming the challenge to America, because at the moment business students are being taught the American way of running a business, which is often inappropriate for other countries. The extent to which the US business community has been caught off-guard by the present slowdown demonstrates the narrowness of American business teaching. A generation of students were not taught enough about a thing called the trade cycle.

Language schools, computer skills, business training – all of these show the ways in which individual segments of the education industry are being transformed.

You might feel that this is all rather utilitarian – an industry being forced to retreat from education for education's sake into education to help people get better jobs or make more money. There is, however, another force that may become equally important at some time in the future: education as part of the leisure industry.

Why learn? Because we have to, of course but also, surely, because it can be fun. As society ages, as the frontier between work and leisure becomes more blurred, we may well return in some ways to a world where people sought education for the sake of wanting to understand the world. You can catch glimpses of this already in, for example, holidays that include an element of education. Learning a leisure skill like scuba diving will also involve learning about marine life. There is the surge in activity holidays in general, or even the rising popularity of quiz shows on television.

In short, there is evidence that many people are seeking education as a good in itself rather than as some sort of career-enhancing move. These skills – like learning to recognise the fish on a tropical reef – are not "needed" as such. We "don't need no education" of that sort. But if we want it, then we are, in a way, returning to the real purpose of education – which involves being more interesting, and interested, human beings.