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Doofus of the week Anniversary Weekend edition – Damien Grant

Written By: - Date published: 10:14 am, January 29th, 2018 - 43 comments
Categories: capitalism, Economy, education, tertiary education - Tags: ,

Damien Grant is an unusual person.  He is on the far right of the political spectrum, the Principal of an Insolvency Firm, and someone who many years ago spent time in jail.  He is open about the experience and refreshingly has opposed knee jerk style three strikes and you are out type approaches, at least to members of the Insolvency Profession.  He is otherwise a far right libertarian.

He is also an occasional writer and the proponent of extreme views, also known as clickbait.  Over the past few months he has mansplained feminism to feminists, claimed that child poverty in New Zealand does not exist, and complained about Lorde’s name.  But his latest effort tops everything else he has written.

He poses the question “When did you last use anything you learned at university?” and then sets out to justify his view that Universities are a waste of time.

He says this:

University education is one of the great follies of modern life. Central government spends over $3 billion on the tertiary sector, which contributes surprisingly little to our economic well-being. Free education is, regardless, very popular, even if it is useless, and this government is committed to expanding the number of students enrolled.


Academics and universities are assessed on the calibre of their research, not their teaching competence, and because they get paid regardless there is no incentive to be relevant. And they aren’t. When did you last use anything you learnt at varsity that you wouldn’t have picked up on the job or from Wikipedia?

Of course this is all errant libertarian nonsense.  In my particular line of work (law) I use my university training every day.  The four in house counsel employed by his firm presumably do the same.  And the medical treatment provided by our doctors and the bridges built by our engineers all rely on skills picked up in University and not off Wikipedia.  Who would want to drive on a bridge not designed by a university graduate or be operated on by someone without tertiary training?

So what does he rely on to justify his claim that university education is essentially worthless?  The claim there is little or no economic benefit for the country.  He says this:

In 2016 the government asked the Productivity Commission to have a look at [the tertiary] sector. It wrote:

“Despite the theoretical links, researchers have generally struggled to find strong empirical links between [tertiary] education and economic development. In New Zealand, comparatively high levels of tertiary attainment in the working-age population have not translated into high levels of productivity.”

It is of course faulty logic to equate a lack of correlation with causation.  Educational standards may be improving but if the system is not performing properly because of, for example neoliberalism, then it will not matter how well educated the population is.

And Grant’s mindset is clear.  Education is only a good thing if it makes us wealthier and better job fodder.  The intrinsic benefits that education provides seem to have passed Grant by.  And having repositories of learning and excellence is something that kick started and pushed on civilisation.  Giving people the opportunity to think and engage and research and learn and mature is something you cannot put a dollar value on.

Grant is right that the running up of student debt is a terrible thing.  The Country should be planning a system like we had in the 1980s when I was at University, where my tuition fees were paid for and I was paid a modest amount to get by on.

While we have a media system that incentivises clickbait I am afraid that this sort of column will continue.  But Damien is a worthy recipient of this latest award.

43 comments on “Doofus of the week Anniversary Weekend edition – Damien Grant ”

  1. Aaron 1

    I can only speak from personal experience and am not a supporter of Damien Grant but my 5 year degree in architecture was one of the most profound wastes of time I’ve ever come across. Despite having experience in other parts of the industry I was a financial burden on my employers for a long time before I started paying my way. And despite being more practical than a lot of my classmates I coildn’t do basic stuff like drawing up a simple house when I graduated.

    To be fair I think I was at a particualry bad school but I have told my chlidren not to rush off to university as I don’t believe a lot of degrees are worth the money and effort to get. Obviously there are some things you can’t do without certain degrees but mostly what we are purchasing with a degree is status.

    • mickysavage 1.1

      The same could be said about most professions. As a lawyer it took me years to get to grips with the job. But this was not because of a failure of University but everything to do with the complexity of the job and the need to have not only academic but practical training. I don’t think that the degree should be blamed. Any job will take decades to properly learn.

      And there are all the extra benefits from further education which are totally un job related which Grant misses completely.

  2. Anne 2

    Oh look… there he is at the top left. Well, it says it all really:


    I think there’s a bit of envy going on here because it looks like he never went to university. 😉

    • Carolyn_nth 2.1

      What makes you think Grant never went to uni? How could he be involved with litigation and insolvency without a tertiary education?

      • Anne 2.1.1

        I picked up on an advertising item about him and under the heading “Qualifications” all it gave was the high school he attended which was a Catholic school. Trouble is, I can no longer find it.

        You’re right. He must have had some form of tertiary education but it wasn’t listed.

        • One Anonymous Bloke

          He talks about a degree in Veutoviper’s second link below.

          • Anne

            Thanks for that. Don’t always get around to reading links but that was interesting. He is deserving of credit for being fulsome about his time in prison. Most would gloss over it in the hope everyone had forgotten about it.

  3. Carolyn_Nth 3

    mostly what we are purchasing with a degree is status.

    Ah, but what happens to that status after tertiary education is made accessible to all the plebs?

    Not that I agree with those sentiments – though, I think for many people status is their motivation for learning.

    I agree with Micky, that ideals of education for participation in all areas of society: not just work, but participation in our democracy, and participation in society during non-paid work time, have been corrupted by neoliberalism/capitalism.

    Plus, I agree with:

    And Grant’s mindset is clear. Education is only a good thing if it makes us wealthier and better job fodder. The intrinsic benefits that education provides seem to have passed Grant by. And having repositories of learning and excellence is something that kick started and pushed on civilisation. Giving people the opportunity to think and engage and research and learn and mature is something you cannot put a dollar value on.

  4. indiana 4

    “and someone who many years ago spent time in jail”

    Are you concerned that during his jail time, he was not rehabilitated and to this very day can still be considered a dishonest person and as such his past should be highlighted. Bullying much?

  5. Incognito 5

    Damien Grant, as usual, takes a few facts – tertiary education and its role in society indeed needs to be debated and reviewed perpetually – and goes for a particular emotional (negative) response. By definition, this makes him a propagandist and his writings propaganda – click bait is way too mild a term for it.

    I’ve got a few theses for a debate with Mr Grant:

    1) Students would be less indebted if tertiary education were to be free.

    2) Students would feel less entitled if tertiary education were to be free.

    3) Students would be less ignorant if tertiary education were to be free.

    4) There would be strong empirical links between [tertiary] education and economic development in New Zealand if we were to diversify the economy from dairy export, tourism, Kauri swamp export, and FIRE.

  6. Reality 6

    I have delighted in seeing a young relative during her two years at university develop her thinking and analytical skills and broaden her horizons. Whatever the future brings these will be useful attributes to have. I wish I had had that opportunity.

  7. RedLogix 8

    Grant is right in a narrow literal sense; in retrospect most of the specific techniques I learnt at engineering school … beyond Stage 1 ….were of zero direct practical use in my career.

    Learning analytical and logical thinking, the discipline of independent study, and associating in those formative years with peers who shared the same aspirations, values and challenges, was in hindsight the real value of a degree course. I’d personally rate the social aspect as at least 50% of the enduring benefit I took away from those years.

    And after 40 years or so in the workplace, the difference between those who’ve been through a University course and those who haven’t is usually quite apparent. They both bring value to the job, and I’ve nothing but respect for the skilled tradies and operators I’ve encountered over the years … but at some point they often run into an intellectual ceiling their degreed counterparts don’t.

    But there are a significant group of exceptional individuals who are an exception to this rule; who didn’t go through University and who’ve suceeded remarkably despite (or indeed possibly because of) their lack of a paper qualification. In that context Grant does have a point, but in general I’d still argue Universities are a major net benefit to society.

    The real question is going to be how the tertiary system responds to the plethora of free, open, on-line courses of a very high quality, that are now available. While the knowledge content is admirable, I suspect the social context may be deficient.

  8. Wingnuts always think university education is about job training, which it isn’t. In your case, a law education, it happened to include some job training but for most of us there was a total of 0 job training involved.

    Nevertheless, his question “When did you last use anything you learned at university?” is easily answered. When did I last use the university-level critical thinking, reading comprehension and writing skills that I learned via an arts and humanities university education? Er, this morning – why do you ask? Just to be clear, I’ll also be using them this afternoon, again when I catch up on my work this evening, and also just about every time I point out the idiocies of wingnuts on blog comments threads. If he didn’t learn much at university, that isn’t everybody else’s fault.

    • mickysavage 9.1


    • Macro 9.2

      Ahh! you beat me to it.
      My thoughts on the matter as well!
      Actually at one point in my time on the Naval Staff I found my knowledge of matrices particularly useful for solving a particular problem with regards recruitment and training.
      We are almost at the stage where we could work towards the solution of a differential equation to more accurately predict future SLR. One thing we know now for sure is that it is no longer a linear function.
      Confusing education with training is a widespread error. Many people can complete any number of certificates and degrees and still fail to become educated. Education entails engagement of mind (and dare I say emotion). Training merely involves an ability to repeat a learned response.
      Libertarians hold such a limited view of humanity however that critical and analytical thinking is not a required trait.

      • halfcrown 9.2.1

        Macro @ 9.2 wrote

        “Confusing education with training is a widespread error. Many people can complete any number of certificates and degrees and still fail to become educated. Education entails engagement of mind (and dare I say emotion). Training merely involves an ability to repeat a learned response.”

        You can say that again,

      • Anne 9.2.2


        The academic analytical skills I picked up in a former career have served me well in attaining other skills that bear no resemblance to the original career.

    • halfcrown 9.3


  9. McFlock 10

    Ignoring the fact that my current role is directly related to a couple of my university courses, even the papers I didn’t get employment in come in useful – I occasionally go “this problem has a similar vibe to xxxx” and use that perspective to work through an issue, be it professional or personal. Sometimes, it’s pols, sometimes economics, sometimes classics, or whatever.

    Like one of the random things that comes in useful is recalling a statisical summary on damage to bombers that someone (Wode?) did in WW2. They didn’t add armour around the damaged bits, they added armour around the bits that had statistically-fewer holes in them when the aircraft return, because the planes that were hit in those areas obviously didn’t come back. Nice little bit of logical analyses I like to recall – sometimes its the stuff that isn’t there that’s the really important bit.

    But besides some basic tools, it’s usually the overall vibe of the education that’s important – how all the individual bits come together to make a whole, and where even experts disagree.

    A while back the term “autodidact” was used hereabouts as a substitute for “I googled it or read a few wikipedia articles, or read a well-written book on the subject”. Self-claimed autodidacts tended to focus on the minutae while missing the main point… in the areas I have some knowledge in, anyway.

  10. SpaceMonkey 11

    I think one of the problems here is that Damien Grant uses “tertiary education” and “university” interchangeably. University education accounts for approx 50-60% of all tertiary education, and the less salubrious tertiary education is done in the PTE and ITO sectors – the latter being focussed on skill-based training for specific industries. But they’re still tertiary education and part of the overall tertiary education spend.

    University education is absolutely not a folly. There are some occupations which MUST have a degree-level qualification attached to them, e.g. Doctors, Engineers. But I do have some question-marks around the volume of courses which over the years have morphed into degree-level when they seemed to be fine at a diploma-level back in the day. But I accept that I am not privy to the thinking that redefined Nursing, for example, as a degree-level qualification.

    When I look back on the time I spent at university from all the subjects I could’ve studied but didn’t, and that I believe would have had the most value to me over my 25 year career, it was Philosophy. If I ever go back, that’s what I’ll be doing. To me the Humanities are the most underrated of disciplines today.

  11. mac1 12

    “When did you last use anything you learned at university?”

    Hmmm. When did I last do some analytical thinking? When did I last talk about and quote from Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot, Shakespeare, Gerald Manley Hopkins, WB Yeats? When did I last make a reasoned submission to a Mayor? When did I last analyse a Ralph Hotere print? When did I last proofread? When did I last take notes? When did I last indulge in banter and repartee? When did I last talk about Roman siege weapons such as onager, ballistae and and mull over photos of trebuchets, and discuss the siege ramp at Masada?

    All before lunch today. Mostly with an old University friend.

  12. Keepcalmcarryon 13

  13. Wei 14

    The universities are (or should be) the repositories and promoters of the cultural, artistic, and scientific knowledge and wisdom of humanity, that is the bedrock of modern civilization.

    All professions, trades, and jobs, reduce and distill this knowledge into readily and relatively easy operational rules and processes to follow. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this as it would not be commercially viable say, for an engineer to derive everything from the first principles of physics when designing say a bridge, or a doctor to consult the biochemical science of pharmaceuticals every time he or she writes a prescription for a patient.

    The problem arises when education over focuses on the needs of employers who will often simply prefer a student educated more in the operational knowledge of a discipline (as well as ‘soft’ business-centric skills), but with a corresponding de-emphasis on the fundamental principles that under-gird this same operational knowledge. The employer benefits (in the short term at least), but the student loses the opportunity for a solid, well rounded education that will serve him or her well in any field of endeavour, and not just the narrow discipline trained in.

    This is employer or business focused education, as opposed to student focused education. Unfortunately this type of thinking is informing a major trend that is currently underway in tertiary education, slipping in under the guise of ompelling terms such as ‘job ready’, ‘relevancy’, ’21st Century education’, ‘workplace relevant training’ etc.

    • mickysavage 14.1

      The universities are (or should be) the repositories and promoters of the cultural, artistic, and scientific knowledge and wisdom of humanity, that is the bedrock of modern civilization.

      Well said.

      As well as this:

      This is employer or business focused education, as opposed to student focused education. Unfortunately this type of thinking is informing a major trend that is currently underway in tertiary education, slipping in under the guise of ompelling terms such as ‘job ready’, ‘relevancy’, ’21st Century education’, ‘workplace relevant training’ etc.

  14. Tuppence Shrewsbury 15

    Grant says tertiary education is valueless and you quite rightly point out this a strange and illogical argument. But then you say education isn’t working because of neoliberalism, which has undoubtably benefited more from education system than any other ism, thereby being just as strange and illogical?

    • McFlock 15.1

      A benefits B
      B harms A.

      Seems to be a perfectly logical possibility to me.

      The host provides benefits to the parasite.
      the parasite harms the host.

      The human provides a stable environment and procreative advantage for the guinea worm.
      The guinea worm causes the human pain, wounds, and pathways for infection.

      yup. Logically sound.

      • Incognito 15.1.1

        The poor benefit the rich.

        The rich harm the poor.

        Axiomatic 😉

      • mickysavage 15.1.2

        Thanks McFlock. Could not have put it better or more succinctly …

        Evidence of a University education?

        • Incognito

          Nope, McFlock is half Vulcan, half Human 😉

        • McFlock

          Still paying it off – and philosophical logic wasn’t even part of my eventual majors or minors 🙂

          Although I do prefer ST:ToS over its successors…

  15. eco maori 16

    My view on education is it was free for all the babyboomers so why not the rest of the people.
    And here it is the 1% neoliberals don’t want commoners to get educated as it is harder to fool educated people also educated people will fight for there rights if one doesn’t know about the human rights act they don’t know the laws of the land is being broken. Most of Maori are common people this is another reason the neoliberals don’t want Maori educated as we will work out that the whole systems are geared to benefit the 1% we will work out that the 1% laugh at the common people for being honest that the 1% can do what ever they want when they know they can buy impunity. This is the reason the west conned privious government to take free education away from the common people. All of this information is out there you just have to look for it enough said.
    Ana to kai

  16. Venezia 17

    Doofus of the week is right. Damien Grant uses an argument I have heard often, usually by people without a University education. In my case, university education undertaken as a mature student changed my life. It broadened my out look on life, made me a better parent, gave me options I never previously had, instilled confidence that I could solve problems in the workplace as well as in life because of skills I learned, led to life long ongoing study & research, and has meant ongoing part time work & income well beyond retirement age.

  17. mpledger 18

    This quote:
    “In New Zealand, comparatively high levels of tertiary attainment in the working-age population have not translated into high levels of productivity.”

    That’s not surprsing – The baby boomers rule the roost and they have very low educational attainment because they could get jobs that led to advancement with School Cert (or less). The people with high rates of tertiary attainment in the working-age population are the young who find it hard to get a decent job which in turn makes their rise up the ranks relatively slow.

    We are well placed once the baby boomers move into retirement as long we get the young experience, especially varied experience, to go with their knowledge. (And as long as those boomer retire – pre-boomers seem to be working into their 70s.)

  18. Delia 19

    ^^^^ Baby boomers fault again eh? I am a registered nurse and studied and worked on the wards with precious little social life to get that qualification. I qualified aged 20. If you think nursing registrations were just handed out, have a crack yourself.

  19. Richard Christie 20

    Spare a thought for USA.

    The entire Republican caucus despise reality as it is informed by science and demean the concept of intellectual elitism (where elitism = excellence in field, – I applaud most elites although many left leaning people use it in a pejorative sense, imo wrongly, as more accurate terms exist for their targets i.e. wealthy/powerful etc ).

    The US disease is surely coming our way.

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