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Friday, February 16, 2007

wente way off the mark.

Here's a letter that I emailed to the Globe & Mail yesterday...

Margaret Wente's column yesterday has bought, hook line and sinker, the argument from McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum: low tuition is bad because it doesn't help people from marginal socioeconomic groups access post-secondary, and it hurt education quality.

The argument misses the point entirely: the question is, is Education a public good or a private good? Primary and secondary schooling is an undisputed public good, and post-secondary is still something of a public good to the extent that it is still somewhat publicly funded; however, post-secondary education being privatized right under our noses in the sense that quality post-secondary is increasingly the exclusive domain of the socioeconomic elite.

Consider the popular argument that lowering tuition would represent a subsidy to wealthy students (and their families) who can already afford to attend — the heart of this argument is an admission that the elite are over-represented, which should itself be a point of serious concern. However, it also ignores the disparate reality that there are a lot of students (let's say at least the half who emerge with student debt) who struggle to make ends meet and are thus distracted from their studies.

The result is a kind of three-tiered education environment: there are those who can afford to study without financial stress, there are those who can afford to study but only under the condition of financial stress (which is a significant disadvantage), and then there in the third group are people of more than ample aptitude who have written off post-secondary out of aversion to financial stress.

Economists like to say that price sends a strong signal: so far this debate seems to have focused on the notion that high tuition is required for high quality, but the flip-side of this argument is the signal high tuition is sending to young people: 'higher learning isn't for everyone, this is just for the best of the best.' In this sense, it is a question more of values than of value: do we want to distributed advanced learning primarily among the elite, or do we want to make it accessible to all Canadians on a level financial playing field, with room for everyone who is qualified?


Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Man, you are so in the wrong party. *grin*

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

I know this isn't remotely what you're saying, but I just wanted to point out that university ISN'T for everyone. It IS just for the "best of the best". It IS supposed to be for the "elite". (the difference of course that I'm speaking here of the best of the best in SCHOLARSHIP. The ACADEMIC elite).

It's a separate issue, I realize, but one which universities are also struggling with. Suddenly, everyone and their dog is going to university, including large numbers of students who shouldn't be there. The rates of university participation are skyrocketting. Are we suddenly a lot smarter, and more academically inclined? No. We're just not so picky about who gets in anymore, and universities are forced to let their enrollemnts explode by funding formulas that pay them (poorly) on a per student basis. There's no incentive anymore to turn away students who CLEARLY shouldn't be in university because on the one hand it's being painted in the media as a "right", and on the other, universities lose desperately needed funding if they don't cram 500 students into a lecture hall and have one professor with 2 T.A.'s do the job formerlly done by 3 professors with 2 T.A.'s EACH.

High School grades are inflated because teachers don't want to interfere with their students' "rights" to a university education, and university standards (in admissions, and in academic standards) are continually lowered as students demand their "right" to higher education. Having paid for this commodity, they demand the "degree (and grades) that they paid for". Professors become mere consultants being paid for by the students (supposedly), and since the customer is always right, the students drive the agenda. We're awfully close to selling widgets as opposed to enlightening minds.

This is separate from your argument on tuition of course, but personally, I've always wished students would replace their "Reduce Tuition Fees" buttons with "Raise University Funding" buttons. Universities are desperate for funding. Why do students put themselves on the opposite side of administrators by threatening the only source of funding they have much control over, rather than working with them to get more funding from the government? Universities don't want (philosophically) to increase tuition, they do so because they're starved for money. Tuition keeps going up, in large part, because universities are being forced to teach more and more students, of less and less scholarly skill, with less and less funding from the government (in real terms).

I think we clearly need LESS students in university, not more, and this leads to a silly, misguided, (but understandable) stand by administrators to keep tuition high, or rather, as-is (not that paying about one quarter of the actual cost of one's education is exactly "high", but higher than many would like). I'm sure many Presidents and Principles hear calls to give MORE students access to university and they quiver. Unfortunately, they're not always paying attention to what's an apple, and what's an orange, it's just that the mere thought of needing to accomadate MORE STUDENTS while reducing a source of funding makes them defensive. On a lot of campuses, it's not even a question of "who will teach all these students" it's "where the Hell will we even PUT them???"

We definitley need to be giving more students of lesser means (but high academic acheivement/potential) a free, or nearly free ride. I'm totally on board with that. But we also need to get over this notion that university is for everyone. It's how one ends up with a country full of unemployed people with graduate degrees and McDonald's resaurants managed by people with Bachelor's degrees. We need less students in university, not more, and though that's separate from the issue of tuition rates, I think it's important to keep it in mind.

Bob McInnis said...

Bravo LKO! Education isn't for everyone and we can not possibly lower the entrance standards anymore or create false requirements for entry. Academia has a responsibility to expand the best minds and research and create innovation and discovery. This doesn't happen with an "Everyone Get Off the Couch" and enroll mentality. That being said, I have lived and worked in Poland and Venezuela where the elite are offered free post secondary spots because it is understood that education can be a public good.

Red Jenny said...

LKO - Ever notice how the right winger's cure-all for poverty is more education?

Drives me crazy, because I agree with you - University isn't for everyone, and that's ok. It should be available for anyone who has that type of academic potential, and those who don't shouldn't be forced into it by social and parental pressure.

There are so many other types of jobs that need to be done (skilled trades for example) but that get no respect. Those who show an aptitude for working with their hands should have the opportunity to do so without all the snobbery that somehow privileges an academic education. The blue collar stigma is worse nowadays than ever before.

Truth be told, what would cause more urgent problems in society: a shortage of plumbers or a shortage of English majors? Even service jobs need to be done and those who do them shouldn't have to be poor.

Anonymous said...

red jenny et al,

I think we are getting what you are calling for - at least in Alberta anyways. Due to the blue collar stigma, we have ended up with a shortage of trades. Heck, it is taking me weeks to get a new show door installed (let's leave the question why I don't install it myself left unasked). Tradespeople are in demand, and are now being paid very well. The system is self-correcting, even if it tends to over-correct at times.

The above maybe doesn't mesh well with the original post. But I am in agreement with earlier comments. We don't need a blanket increase in university enrollment. We need targeted increases where we have need (nurses, doctors, engineers), and -even though it is apt to offend some people - targeted decreases in areas where we don't (lawyers, B.A.'s in Poli-Sci, etc.). It is just unfortunate that the reduction comes from those unable/unwilling to pay versus from those who are clearly not cut out for academics.

But I do take exception to those who argue education is a right. Basic education is a right (i.e. learning how to read and do math). Higher education is not. And this comment is coming from someone whose household includes two bachelor's degree, an MA and a PhD, if it matters.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

I think you've got it exactly right Jenny. The big problem is that we've been telling people they "need" a university degree for so long that it's becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once employers see that they're getting applicants with Bachelor's degrees applying for jobs that used to require a high school diploma, it's not long before they add "Bachelor's degree" to the requirements on the job description.

Want to work as a legal secretary? Better have a law degree. Want to read stories to the kids at a public library? Got a Master's degree in English?

People seem to think that a Bachelor's degree isn't worth what it once was because our world has become so complicated that you need a B.A. to tie your shoes. Not so. It's been devalued because half the people who make it out of high school end up getting Bachelor's degrees (an exageration, but for how much longer?).

Then there's our tendency to treat universities as job training programs. People think they need a Bachelor's degree to get a job, and worse that that's the PURPOSE of a Bachelor's degree (hint, if you did your Bachelor's degree in hopes of getting a better job, you probably shouldn't have gone to university at all). When they can't find a job they want with their B.A., they go on to do a Master's degree. By the time they finish that, they're too sick of school to do a PhD (because they never liked academia to begin with, so don't ask me why they did a grad degree) so now they're underqualified for the jobs they'd like in their field, and overqualified for anything else. I have friends who have to leave their Master's degrees off their CVs to get a job, because of this very phenomenon (no one leaves their Bachelor's degree off a CV, as a Bachelor's degree no longer makes one overqualified for ANYTHING!!!).

I think we're doing a lot of students a big disservice. Huge numbers of students are spending their time getting undergraduate degrees as "job training", aparently oblivious to the fact that all the good jobs in many fields require graduate work beyond a B.A. (or B.Sc. in many cases). I can't tell you how many people I know who got their B.A., and THEN went in to a college program to get a diploma that could actually get them a job! I'd never say that completing a degree is a "waste", but these people would have almost universally been materially better off getting their diploma right out of high school and starting work 4 years earlier, because their B.A. didn't get them their job, their Dip. did. That's not to say a B.A. doesn't have merit in it's own right (and I disagree with anon's plan of cutting "less employable" programs, as this just perpetuates the wrong-headed belief that getting a university degree is about job training...and it ISN'T) but to say that too many students in B.A. programs have been led to see their degree as job preparation, rather than education, and these students are the ones who end up disappointed. It's true that people with Bachelor's degrees statistically make more money than people without. But ask yourself how much longer that will be true once everyone has a Bachelor's degree?

We need to start teaching kids to make better decisions about their futures. As it is, most undergraduate students aren't in university out of intellectual curiosity. They're there because it's EXPECTED of them. Basically, that makes it little more than hitting "pause" on their lives for four years, and since all their peers are doing the same, their little better off when the decide to hit "play" again.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

BTW daveberta,

Sorry to have hijacked the post a bit.

Couldn't help myself.

ottlib said...

First of all in the knowledge economy we need as many educated people that we can get so we should be encouraging the non-elite folks to go to university and colleges as much as the elites, provided they can meet the entrance requirments.

Second, some countries have higher education systems where their universities do not charge tuition. Whether you get into a university or not is based solely on your academic standing in highschool. Since no one has a financial disincentive to seek a higher education and there are still a limited number of university spaces available it leads to fierce competition for those spots and a generally higher level of academic achievement from primary school right through to university.

Bottom line: People who meet the academic requirements should be able to attend university without beggering themselves for the next couple of decades.

Lord Kitchener's Own said...


For the record, if you mean by "non-elites", "non-wealthy" or "non-privileged" I couldn't agree more. I FULLY support eliminating economic and social barriers to university. However I also support eliminating social barriers to NOT going to university.

I also agree that we need as many educated people as possible in the 21st century. The problem is, imho, that the correlation between "educated" and "degree-holding" is getting smaller and smaller every year. I fear the day when having an undergraduate degree is no more an indication of a person's level of educational attainment than a high school diploma was 50 years (and I don't mean relative to the population, I mean objectively the same).

Feynman and Coulter's Love Child said...

I gotta echo Lord Kitchener's comments. Higher education isn't for everyone. As it in, Universities are failing in their job of spending the first year and a half of an undergraduates life being a filter, weeding out the students who have no business being there. Higher University tuitions would make sure that private trade schools and technical colleges don't get shafted for students due to the financial variance: ($17,000 for a year at CDI College versus $2,521 for a year at the University of Alberta).

LKO - Ever notice how the right winger's cure-all for poverty is more education?
But when did this become synonymous with subsidized University education?

Allie Wojtaszek said...

I think you should pay close attention to what Margaret Wente said - she is expressing the views of many voters - voters that are being driven away from caring about PSE in general by the "lower tuition, even more, right now and then keep lowering it, every year" message.

When the voters (read tax payers) decide that something isn't important or as important as everything else needing funding then the governments have less motivation to care as well.

Wente's message should be an alarm bell for you that the current approach is perhaps losing the sympathies of the voting public - and if being a student leader is more to you then protesting and politiking then it is a call to a different kind of action.

Anonymous said...

Wente's message should be an alarm bell to taxpayers that taxpayer funded University bureaucrats like McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum are using taxpayer funded resources to convince columnists like Wente that charging the taxpayer more for something they already pay through their taxes is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

bravo, nolan.
-Shannon Phillips

Anonymous said...

Sure, Nolan. But what good does that do student leaders? It really doesn't matter how or why the opinions of the electorate are swayed, what matters is they have been.

Anonymous said...

Have they been? I don't think either the Toronto Globe & Mail or McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum represent the mainstream of the electorate with their elitist opinions on this issue.

In fact, I think the electorate would have quite a bit to say to both Ms. Wente and Ms. Munroe-Blum.

Anonymous said...

PS. Thanks, Shannon.

Allie Wojtaszek said...

I actually meant my comments to be directed personally to Dave and relevant to his specific situation. No need to claw your eyes out here!

kenlister1 said...

wente off the deep end?

kenlister1 said...

dave is a realist which in my estimation is much better than an idealist. i think dave is fine where he is.

Sam said...

The opinions of the electorate haven't been swayed here in Alberta. 52% of Albertans see education as unaffordable, those are government numbers, and numbers we ignore at our own peril.