Gustafsson v Friedman: Taking education off the pedestal of economic growth “incomplete”, “misleading”

In a recent letter published on Business Day‘s website, ReSEP researcher and Department of Basic Education adviser Martin Gustafsson, challenges an opinion piece by Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, titled “Education is not the cure-all it is made out to be”.

In light of the ongoing student protests and the state of access to, and quality of, education in South Africa, Friedman’s original opinion piece had drawn from the work of Ricardo Hausmann, former Venezuelan cabinet minister and academic economist.

Friedman writes: “[Hausmann’s] numbers show that huge growth in education levels over the past 50 years have not translated into equivalent growth in the economy. [He] pointed out that China’s educational progress lags behind that of Tunisia, Mexico, Kenya and Iran — yet it grew much faster than any of them.”

Gustafsson is quick to point out that Hausmann and Friedman’s argument provides a misleading and incomplete view of the total body of research in this field.

“Yes, there was considerable disagreement around the education-growth link when we still relied on educational participation as an indicator of investment in education. But since about 2005, the use of educational-quality indicators, drawing from test data, have made the link clearer and far less disputable. In fact, over the longer term, education tends to emerge as the most powerful single factor promoting growth,” Gustafsson writes.

But Friedman also argues in his piece that the near ubiquitous notion that education is the central problem facing slowly developing and unequal economies, can have drawbacks.

“This is why harping on education can hold us back — by diverting our attention from other problems that need attention. A frequent problem is that the education argument becomes a handy excuse for those who are doing well and do not want anything to change… [This type of argument] places all the blame on people at the bottom and requires no change at all from those at the top. Like the claim that voters need “education” whenever they behave in a way that elites dislike, this is more about making people at the top feel better than about solving problems.”

However, Gustafsson points out that Hausmann’s own article faces wanting scrutiny in its lack of reasonable time dimensions in evaluating time-dependent variables such as education.

“The idea that there should be a worrying education myth within the growth discourse is itself a myth, it would seem, and is an unnecessary distraction,” he concludes.


To access the original articles that form this debate, please follow these links in chronological order: Hausmann; Friedman; Gustafsson

To learn more about Martin Gustafsson and his role with the ReSEP group, please click here.