Steel versus Gold: Higher Education Mis-Match

“Everything has its limits – iron ore cannot be educated into gold” Mark Twain, 1835-1910

Even if you could educate iron ore into gold, it would not necessarily be a good idea to do it. Steel is incredibly versatile and useful and we need a lot of it, whereas gold is mainly a luxury item, which gets its value from scarcity and has little practical use, except for keeping track of who is married and who is not.

The higher education system in Bolivia seems to try to turn a lot of iron ore into gold: 90% of public spending on higher education goes into universities (supposedly producing “gold”), whereas 7% goes to the formation of teachers and only 3% goes to technological institutes (producing “steel”) (1).

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What do we really know about education quality in Bolivia

Since the main purpose of education is to raise the future income generating capacity of the students, it will take several decades before we can truly know how well our present education system is doing.

Past experience is of little help as both the education system and the structure of demand has changed tremendously over the last few decades.

A commonly used shortcut to evaluate current education quality is to use standardized academic aptitude tests. According to the last internationally comparable test that Bolivia participated in, public schools in Bolivia are in really bad shape (see Figure 1).

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Education Reform: Second opinion

Last week’s post on the Principles of Education Reform caused quite some discussion among the readers, and there is indeed much more to be said on this important topic.

Having benefited enormously from 20 years of excellent, free public education in Denmark, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of public education as completely hopeless and in violation of basic economic principles.

Well, to be honest, Denmark is not benefiting much from the investment as I left the country right after finishing my education, and, again to be honest, my own kids are in one of the most expensive private schools in Bolivia (fortunately heavily subsidized by the French government).

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