Sunday, March 5, 2006

What's the point in being poor if you can get to do everything the rich kids can? Part 2

From the London Free Press last week, a parade of aggrieved welfare recipients demanding more luxuries! less responsibility!

While Ontario's advanced education minister was at an education summit in Ottawa yesterday, his London riding office was picketed by students angry about rising tuition. Students and former students, politicians and union officials gathered at MPP Chris Bentley's south-end constituency office to protest the Ontario Liberal government's intention to raise tuition fees this fall after a two-year freeze.

"Between my partner and I, who has a PhD, we have massive student debt," said Becky Ellis, 27, her two young kids in tow. "We pay between $800 and $900 a month on loan payments. People think I find school hard because I can't find child care, but that's not it. It's really stressful." Now a part-time anthropology student at University of Western Ontario, Ellis said she wants to take some courses this summer but will be forced to ask family members to help pay the fees — almost $1,000 for a full course, she said. "I guess I'll have to ask them for help so I can pay them back over a period of time," she said.
Let me guess… her "partner" is an arts and humanities or a social science graduate too. One could speculate on whether Ellis had gained anything more from her university education than politically correct nomenclature for one's spouse — the university is certainly not inculcating any conceptions of self-responsibility. Ellis' whimpering on the behalf of her and her partner does, however, fit in well with the educated class' model of equating virtue with victimhood. But Ellis and her partner were never, contrary to the tone of her report, forced to purchase university education — as she herself admits, she "wants to take some courses this summer."
Other students at the protest echoed her frustration at student debt. Adil Ahmed, one of the organizers, said his debt load is $28,000 after four years of university and he's getting ready for two more years at $7,000 a year in loans. "It's really tough. It hinders your ability to do anything," Ahmed said before speaking to the crowd at Bentley's office.
Nor, apparently, are logic or the ability to make decision rules facilities that modern universities instill. Ahmed, who has willingly acquired $28,000 in debt already, is back for two years more … and complaining about it! If Ahmed and Ellis did not already recognize personal financial opportunities in obtaining university degrees, one would think they would have already disabused themselves of the idea of accruing more debt if they had gained anything at all in their time in higher education. Of course, they do already recognize those benefits, as well as the investment in their short-term financial interest that can be made by agitating to have other people pay for it.

To date, the Ontario government is already subsidizing 73% of university operating revenue on average — it is impossible to assert that tuition is underfunded unless one's objective is to become a complete ward of the welfare state. Of course, like any institution, public or private, that is funded publicly, there is little incentive for universities to trim administrative excesses to gain competitive advantages in the pursuit of clients, especially when the price for services is determined by the province as well, and so the average cost of providing a university education per student is much higher than it would need to be in a competitive market, especially of the basic and mediocre calibre that most Ontario students are receiving. In any case, the cost of receiving university education is already borne almost entirely by taxpayers, only some of whom have received benefits in kind.

Two rationales behind these pleas are typically:
  1. that students are in effect forced to acquire degrees to be competitive in the job market; and
  2. that the presence of university graduates in the economy creates additional wealth that benefits everyone.
Both rationales have the self-serving virtue of sounding plausible because they are vague and unmeasurable enough to suffer a lack of critical assessment — but the second is entirely false and the first only true in certain fields. And to the extent that students must acquire degrees for the sake of acquiring degrees, it is precisely because of the government's manipulation of the education economy, making it a cheap prospect to delay the commencement of lifelong financial management and attain a degree, particularly in fields that are more or less irrelevant to the requirements of employers, and thereby flooding the job market with university graduates. In consequence, employers are able to institute an artificial standard with respect to many jobs that they would not apply otherwise, simply as a mechanism to weed out prospects. Continuing that manipulation in the form of either maintaining or decreasing current tuition rates will only exacerbate that problem. As for the second, the glut of students taking degrees in disciplines that are inconsequential to economic productivity and subtracting that time from their potential to generate wealth is hardly going to create additional wealth on a greater regional scale. But I've written on this subject before:
Like health care, education has long been considered one of those Motherland commodities that are supposed to benefit society at large. Education in particular supposes an economic benefit that justifies taking disposable income that would otherwise be spent according to the free preferences of its owners — education apparently "creates" additional wealth, regardless of the wealth it drains institutionalizing itself, a fictitious argument based on another supposition that wealth itself is a collective commodity acquired and measured by political means. Unlike health care, however, education is also understood as an investment towards future economic benefits for individuals — even to those who individuals who in the meantime obtain the benefits of collective investment in their education. This contradiction — this hypocrisy — of students can only be reconciled if they acquiesce to having their wealth appropriated for future generations when they become full-time taxpayers… which they all too often do, a perfect example of the perpetual rationalization of planned economies.

If post-secondary education access should be universal, the simple desire to attend university becomes the overriding admission criterion. In fact, with the Ontario government subsidizing 73% of university operating revenue on average, post-secondary education has almost become universal — an effect that is observed not only through increasing enrolment but also bald declarations of entitlement. Potential students recognize the financial benefits to themselves of acquiring a degree in a competitive economy, of course. When they demand access to the degree, however, when they require that admissions do not discriminate on any other criteria, they fail to realize is that they are generally competing against the standards of universal access — mediocrity.

… When there are no discriminating criteria for admission to post-secondary education, the relative benefits of a degree in the job market deteriorate. Moreover, the absolute benefits of the degree must suffer as well. Post-secondary degrees, like high school diplomas, become in themselves an expectation — a right — and educational expectations must be lowered to appease the more intellectually diverse student population and the graduation rates. No one must be left behind!
While the greed of some who demand handouts is merely personally pathetic, there are others whose greed is much more institutional, the sort that conscript the gullible short-term financial interest of people like Ellis and Ahmed to agitate for their more encompassing agenda. The Free Press article goes on to cite one:
[G]raduate student Patti Dalton, another protest organizer … said it took her 12 years to pay off her undergraduate debt. "Public education is exactly that — public — and it should be funded by the government, not on the backs of students," Dalton said.

The students and the Canadian Federation of Students have vowed to continue protests until tuition is lowered. "The (student assistance) grants are a drop in the bucket that will not even be close to funding someone's education," Dalton said.
What the Free Press omits is that Dalton is the current president of UWO's Society of Graduate Students, an organization that, like other groups sponsoring tuition protests such as the Canadian Federation of Students, is funded by mandatory student levies. The financial interests of Dalton and the paid employees and directors of these groups benefit directly from increased post-secondary enrolment.

Update: Coincidentally, just after posting this, I came across an article by Alison Wolf, Too many students?, that addresses much of the subject matter contained above.
It is true that the proportion of professional, technical and managerial jobs has increased greatly in recent years. And while non-graduate managers ran most of the developed world's companies in the first half of the 20th century, and often in the second half too, they no longer do so. None the less, in the last 20 years, study after study has confirmed that many of the jobs-typically a quarter to a third-which were once non-graduate and are now graduate have made this change without any equivalent change in the skills required or used.

What is more, within developed countries there is no clear link between student numbers and growth rates, GDP per head or productivity. For example, Switzerland, at the top of the income tree, has the lowest university participation rates in the OECD; while the US, also near the top, has the highest. Big increases in university numbers are at least as likely to follow periods of rapid growth as they are to precede them: Japan is a prime example.

So when a minister asserts that "We need more young people to go to university because it is an economic necessity," he or she would be hard pressed to back up the claim. Employers sometimes do need graduate skills, but often they use graduate entry as a way of "screening" applicants: that is, targeting people who have shown application, and are assumed to be in the top half of the cohort intellectually. They may miss candidates who have both these qualities, and no degree, but finding them is too much trouble. This is rational behaviour on employers' part, if not much to do with the "knowledge society."
… and much more. Continue reading here. Via Oliver Kamm.


bonnie abzug said...

"...average cost of providing a university education per student is much higher than it would need to be in a competitive market.."

So, Mapmaster, is it your position that (just as in health care no doubt) tuition costs would be lower and the product delivered of a better quality if post-secondary education was spun off to the private sector and market efficiencies introduced?

MapMaster said...

Yup! Certainly as far as the quality goes… as far as the price goes, it would in many establishments be lower than the current price, if one factors in the hidden subsidized costs. Other establishments of even greater quality would likely charge higher prices than at present, but the benefits of acquiring an education at those institutions would be compensatorily much higher as well.

MapMaster said...

Sorry, not "subsidized costs," just subsidization of the price.

Pietr said...

The trouble with the Sacred Conch of Educational Quality is that once a reputation is earned, it is abused to the advantage of those who don't necessarily represent the best in any sense; such as the Oxford and Cambridge(and London Imperial) colleges, who admit dimwits of the 'right' type and give them the patina of an education.
The fact is that in no sense should the possession of a qualification from one of these places constitute an advantage unless backed up by corroborating tests.
For example, back in the eighties my mates and I were all rejected by Imperial; in open competition we took on their best team and got double their score;one of us(Hugh) was taking Nuclear Engineering at my 'redbrick' college,and now he teaches robotics at Cambridge.