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Anywheres or Somewheres?


For the last blog before the half-term break, and in the week when we held an information evening about university applications for our Lower Sixth pupils and their parents, I offer a little more from David Goodhart and his analysis of the state of the country in the thought-provoking ‘Head, Hand, Heart’. 

The first focus is an idea that he developed in a previous book about the differences between what he calls ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’, and the impact that different worldviews can have on the way our society is structured and governed, with a particular focus on some of the pros and cons of our university system.

Anywheres, he tells us, make up about 25 to 30 per cent of the population.  They are well educated, mainly with at least an undergraduate degree, often live far from their parents, tend to favour openness and autonomy, and are comfortable with social fluidity and novelty.  Somewheres, by contrast, are a larger group of people – about half the population – who are less well educated, more rooted, who value security and familiarity, and who place a much greater emphasis on group attachments, local and national, than the Anywheres.  There is also an Inbetweener group who share the two worldviews almost equally – though this is clearly not linked to the Channel 4 programme of a similar name, which has an altogether different premise!

Anywheres are generally comfortable with social change because they have what he calls ‘achieved identities’, a sense of themselves derived from educational and career success, which allows them to fit in pretty much wherever they may go.  Somewheres, by contrast, tend to have ‘ascribed identities’, rooted more in place or group, which means they are much more easily discomforted by rapid change to those places and groups.

Goodhart is keen to emphasise that both the Anywhere and Somewhere worldviews are decent and legitimate, but he makes the point that the values and priorities of Anywheres have come to dominate modern politics and all mainstream political parties.  And, he goes on, the Anywhere answer to everything from social mobility to improved productivity has been the same: more academic higher education, in the quintessentially Anywhere institution of the modern university.

The central challenge for democratic politics in all rich countries is how to achieve an open, mobile society while continuing to value relatively stable, meaningful communities.  How, the author asks, can ambitious people follow their desires and leave without making those who stay feel that they have been left behind and diminished?  How can the stayers have the same opportunity to live successful and fulfilled lives, in their own way, as the leavers?

Despite all the talk about levelling up – and for the most part it really is only talk – I think there can be no disagreement when Goodhart highlights that English working-class towns such as Barnsley, Doncaster and Wakefield each year suffer a brain drain, losing thousands of their academically brightest eighteen-year olds to university towns and metropolitan centres such as Leeds and Sheffield.  I lived in Wakefield for nine years, so I can offer eye-witness testimony that this is true.

Many of the leavers never return there to live permanently, with almost a quarter of all the UK’s new graduates ending up in London, at least initially, while big cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Belfast retain about half of their graduates in local jobs and accommodation.  According to a recent study drawing on the 450,000 people enrolled in the UK Biobank, this is apparently now creating a ‘gene drain’ in left-behind areas, with those who are healthier and brighter leaving for urban centres.

As Goodhart says, people without decent levels of basic academic skills are at a permanent disadvantage in today's world – and society would not work without the higher academic skills of doctors, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, bio-technologists and some of their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences – but he makes the key point that education should increasingly be regarded as a ‘positional good’. i.e. one which gains much of its value from whether you have more than other people.

However, he argues, there is one very big fact that modern politics will need to confront in the next decade.  Political parties of both centre-left and centre-right have taken as axiomatic that modern society will see a continuing expansion of secure, middle-class, professional, graduate jobs.  Both education and social mobility policy are based on this assumption.  Yet, he points out, it is almost certainly wrong.  The knowledge economy does not need an ever-growing supply of knowledge workers.  It still needs a top layer of the cognitively most able and original, but much of the work required of middle-ranking professionals is already substantially routinised – and therefore potentially vulnerable to AI, which may become the key driver of significant societal change in the coming years.

The crux of Goodhart’s argument is that those with higher cognitive ability have benefited disproportionately from developments in recent decades, to the detriment of the majority.  For example, he says, if advertisements for teaching assistants or accounting technicians begin routinely to require a degree, thanks to an oversupply of graduates, it is common sense for individuals who wish to work in these fields to obtain one.  

But, he continues, it would be better for both individuals and society if the arms race could be called off and access to such jobs restored to conscientious school leavers, as used to be the case.  It is not that we are investing too much in education in general, but too much may be going on signalling efforts for the higher-level exam-passers and not enough on the vocational, professional and technical skills, and indeed the lifelong learning, that most of the population, and the economy, needs to flourish.  He says it is a bit like acquiring a state-of-the-art nuclear weapon while your tanks and artillery decay.

Despite what our politicians may tell us, there is no clear link between education and economic growth, except perhaps in the early stages of industrialisation.  Goodhart has studied the data and he concludes that countries with similar levels of educational attainment can exhibit very different productivity and growth performances.  Conversely, rich countries with very different numbers of graduates can produce very similar growth and productivity numbers.  There is an extraordinary amount of magical thinking about the beneficial impact of higher education on productivity, economic growth and social mobility – it has been compared to the Soviet Union’s irrational belief in capital goods during the years of communist rule.

It is hard to disagree with him when he says that education, from an employment point of view, turns out, at least at higher levels, to be not so much about what you have actually learned but what your level or place of education will signal to a potential employer about your general academic aptitudes and your character and attitudes.  It is a ranking system and, in the UK, it is reinforced by the physical and social separation of the residential universities.  And the sorting hat of higher education creates a qualification treadmill requiring ever more differentiation – just look at America, where many professions require PhD levels of qualification even to get a foot in the door. 

As a parting thought for this week, Goodhart says that after all the huffing and puffing about the knowledge society and the importance of sending as many school leavers as possible to university, it turns out that what many employers are looking for in graduates is not the little they have learned at college but rather the ‘soft’ social skills such as application, concentration, ability to cooperate with co-workers, and so on, learned primarily in the family, especially the middle class one.  It may therefore be the case for many that a degree level of education is not as valuable as we might have thought – and certainly not worth the thousands of pounds it now costs to get one.

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