In Matt Ridley's The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge he makes many challenges to widely accepted ideas.

He challenges the widely held idea that more education is good. For example:

Is there any evidence that it was education that drove countries to prosperity, or vice versa? Alison Wolf examined the data in exhaustive detail in her book Does Education Matter?, and concluded that the answer is a surprising ‘no’.

As Wolf concludes: ‘If high-quality schooling is making any difference to the relative economic performance of countries, it is doing so in a very undramatic fashion, since its effects appear to be swamped or neutralized by other factors.’

More specifically he claims later in the chapter on education:

Without good literacy and numeracy, it would not be possible for most well-paid jobs to exist. That is not the issue. Rather it is whether, beyond a certain level, more education – let alone more education spending – does more good.

His argument is that, beyond a certain basic level, more spending on education doesn't do any good for the economy. Is that what the economic evidence says? Do countries that spend more on education see higher levels of economic growth?

Ridley seems to accept that basic literacy is important for modern economies, so I suspect it is worth focusing on developed countries that have had universal literacy for some time to avoid confusing the argument with the comparison of fully literate countries and partially literate countries.

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    This claim needs to be pinned down. It's pretty obvious that by the time everyone in a country has multiple PhDs, more education is not going to increase productivity. We would need to know what level he is claiming the benefits stop at. Oct 18, 2015 at 19:57
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    @DJClayworth A quick scan of Ridley's source (Alison Wolf's book) suggests strong skepticism about university and vocational education funded by government, some about secondary education but a broad acceptance that primary education is beneficial for the economy.
    – matt_black
    Oct 18, 2015 at 20:39
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    Ridley would be against apple pie and sliced bread if they were government made. Oct 19, 2015 at 13:12
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    @DJClayworth I'm tempted to agree with you having read his latest book where, in some chapters at least, he has jumped the shark. But he isn't always wrong and it is worth testing his ideas. That's what this site's job is, isn't it?
    – matt_black
    Oct 19, 2015 at 13:16
  • @DJClayworth - I consumed apple pies and sliced bread produced by the government. Anybody sane would be against them.
    – user5341
    Oct 19, 2015 at 15:03

1 Answer 1


Is there any evidence that it was education that drove countries to prosperity, or vice versa? Alison Wolf examined the data in exhaustive detail in her book Does Education Matter?, and concluded that the answer is a surprising ‘no’.

The above claim is false. The effect of higher education on GDP has been measured in this study comparing Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK, and US.

Our key findings are:

  • GDP per employment hour increased from 1982-2005 in all countries. […]
  • The share of employment with tertiary education also increased from 1982-2005 in all countries. […]
  • Growth accounting analysis indicated that graduate skills accumulation contributed to roughly 20% of GDP growth in the UK from 1982-2005. […]
  • Our econometric analysis indicated that a 1% increase in the share of the workforce with a university degree raises the level of long run productivity by 0.2-0.5%. […]

--The relationship between graduates and economic growth across countries, Dawn Holland, Iana Liadze, Cinzia Rienzo and David Wilkinson, National Institute of Economic and Social Research

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 18, 2015 at 15:31
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    Your statement "the above claim is false" is ambiguous. If Matt Ridley accurately reported what Alison Wolf said then the claim is in fact true. You are denying that "there is no evidence" by providing a contrary report, but wording what you say in a way which suggests it is definitive that education that drove countries to prosperity rather than the other way round. The report you quote seems to be based on correlation rather than causation, with other effects such as losing the relationship between R&D and GDP.
    – Henry
    Oct 19, 2015 at 8:03
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    @Henry thanks for your comment. The study linked is openly on causation, for example its second sentence says that they are "producing estimates of the impact of HE on growth and competitiveness is a major challenge" and it seems to me that it is openly disproving the claims in the quote. There's evidence of causation, so both Ridley and Wolf are wrong. Ridley is wrong about the existence of evidence and Wolf because of her book. Maybe Ridley is wrongly quoting Wolf, but that's not what this question is about, I assume.
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 19, 2015 at 10:05
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    @Sklivvz The intent of my question wasn't to ask whether there was any evidence and I don't think that is the interpretation Ridley or Wolf intended either. Wolf states early in her book that she is challenging an almost universal belief (presumably by reviewing existing evidence and finding it inadequate.) Asking whether there is any evidence is a very narrow interpretation I didn't intend.
    – matt_black
    Oct 19, 2015 at 13:14
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    I understand your frustration, but I can't answer based on the "intent" of your question or the "intent" of who makes the claim. I can only answer based on what's written and an actual claim. There's strong peer reviewed, measured evidence that more education causes growth. I don't think you can dismiss it merely by inferring something someone said in a book. They don't even claim there's evidence to the contrary. She finds the evidence inadequate? That's her opinion. Has she evidence of the contrary? She didn't say so.
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 19, 2015 at 13:23

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