Tuesday, December 05, 2006

First, Free Education for All. Second, Collective Farms. Third, Marshal Zhukov Takes Berlin.

Just kidding. Still, I'm amused by Olaf's reaction to the idea of universal free post-secondary tuition.
If one is arguing that tuition fees are unfairly restrictive for low-income individuals, how does it follow that tuition should be free for all? Classic socialist thinking: if anyone can't afford something, it should be free for everyone! Huzzah! Proletariat... and everyone else... unite!
Stripping Olaf's... rhetorical flourishes aside, there's an important point here: Universal access does not, by definition, need to be guaranteed by imposing a universally low price on all consumers. I happen to think that given the economic realities of Canada, and our generally smaller markets (outside of the big cities, how many communities can support multiple, competing universities or hospitals?) this is actually the best path, but I am certainly not an economist.

Olaf, Paladiea at MyBlahg, and Devon Rowcliffe are all debating the necessity of universal post-secondary education, and the proper pricing thereof. Well, actually, they're only really debating the pricing thereof, without dealing with the necessity of it at all.

And this is where the debate, I think, takes a bit of a weird turn. First of all, we tend to talk about post-secondary education (PSE) as an aggregate, but the reality is that most people think we're talking about universities. But there's relatively little that a simple Bachelor of Arts gets you in life - speaking as a currently-unemployed bearer of a pretty spiffy BA who's unsuccesfully looking for work. So dumping a mass of students in the university system, by itself, doesn't really get the country anything for it's time or money.

Meanwhile, the programs that actually could benefit us the most in our modern information economy - computer sciences, engineering, medicine - are exactly the programs that have the highest costs to enter, and saddle students with the most debt. If we really wanted to produce an economy chock-full of knowledge workers, we'd be doing the exact opposite - make it free to enter a medicine or engineering program, and let the system grow as much as necessary to handle the production of (obviously) competent, qualified graduates.

More broadly, we seriously need to rethink a lot of what we use education for in Canada. Having just recently graduated, I can tell you that almost nobody in my graduating class was under the illusion that they'd learned any inherently marketable skills, even (amusingly) the Marketing students. We all expect a certain amount of on-the-job training. But why, if we didn't learn anything terribly useful in school, are we effectively required to have (at least!) one degree before an employer will look at our resumés a second time?

The worst industry on this count, for my money, is journalism - every single journalist I've spoken with who's spent any serious time in the industry (i.e. a decade or more) has conceded a) that most university Bachelor of Journalism degrees are basically useless at predicting the quality of actual journalists, b) the better journalists are the ones who came to journalism having learned a lot in other fields first, and c) none of that matters because their company won't hire anyone without a B.J. (Stop snickering.)

In a number of fields - journalism is hardly the only culprit - we've instituted a paperwork arms race, where graduating students are required to keep adding more and more degrees to enter fields where, a generation ago, a college course might have gotten you the job. Lowering the price of education, in this scenario, is meaningless - not everyone can afford to spend six years of their lives getting a Masters to become a secretary, for God's sake.

Let's - please! - have a debate about what we want education in this country to be for, before we decide how much we want to pay for it. You'd do this with any other purchase, right?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point John. I do think we need to make available information that indicates what type of education will actually land a job, and we need more input from the employers to help make said education more relevant.

I'll take CompSci as an example. I'm a community college grad (Sheridan), from a 3 year Computer Science co-op program. The program is reviewed on an annual basis by former students and employers and the curriculum is changed to meet newly identified needs. It works pretty well actually.

This is necessary in a changing field like IT. In the 11 years since I've graduated, everything I was taught has become non-relevant. Either the technology has changed, OR, the underlying theories (Database architecture, System Analysis, etc.) have been tossed as unworkable. I'm glad my diploma got me into the workforce, but I'm also glad the course was $450 a semester as the relevance of the material expired fairly quickly.

On the other topic. In high school I was considering going to University to take chemistry. My guidance counselors were pushing me down that route, as going to community college was a waste of talent in their eyes (University computer courses were scarce, and were usually part of the math department back at that time).

In the end I went to community college and now I work at a company where I earn more than double the highest paid chemist. The chemists I talk to were disappointed in the lack of jobs in the marketplace, to the point that two went back to community college to get IT diplomas. Guess what? They're now filling a need in the workforce and have higher salaries to boot. Would have been nice if that information was available BEFORE we pursued our PSE.

I'm where I'm at thanks to a lucky guess as to career paths, had I chosen different, I probably wouldn't be as far along as I am now.