Friday, August 24, 2012

On Free Post-Secondary Education and Lifelong Learning

Much ink has been spilled in recent months - particularly in the province of Quebec - as to whether a post-secondary formal education is a privilege or a right.  After reflecting on this question over the summer, and listening in on several debates on the matter, I have not been swayed from my initial stance: it is a privilege.

A prosperous society should ensure that its citizens have access to a high quality elementary and high school education.  While some students benefit from this environment more than others, all high school graduates leave with a basic body of knowledge.  More importantly, after more than a decade of interacting with roughly fifty different educators, these young men and women, some more than others, have learned how to learn.

Learning is a right in the sense that no one should be prevented from doing so.  But learning is not limited to a school setting.  Educational institutions do not hold a patent on learning.  Someone who is not enrolled in University is still welcome to visit the library, to have discussions with friends and family, and to peruse the internet, which contains an unimaginable wealth of useful information amidst an endless supply of videos of cats eating their own vomit (the user gets to decide what content is more beneficial to them, and judging by hit counts on YouTube, society tends to favour cat puke).

It seems to me that many individuals have an incorrect view of what a post-secondary degree does and does not consist of.  Higher learning is a fast-pass to knowledge and methodology.  It facilitates and also polices the learning process.  If someone has an interest in something, a University degree is probably the most efficient avenue towards becoming proficient at it.  And, yes, at the end, graduates are endowed with a piece of paper stating that they done good.  It is clear to me that choosing to benefit from the services described above is just that: a choice.  It is not a necessity, is not a good fit for everyone, and must not be mandated - it is a privilege that is worth paying for in many cases.

In addition to pushing a state into debt, free post-secondary education carries with it two negative consequences: it dilutes the quality of students that choose to attend, and allows those that do to not take it seriously.  In short, entirely state-funded University cheapens the experience for everyone.  The post secondary service ought to fall somewhere between free and expensive.  It should be affordable; it should cost enough to deter the "slackers" but not so much as to make it inaccessible.

As students and teachers file back to classrooms this fall, my thoughts are with all those outside the "educational environment".  I would like to see non-students take ownership of their own learning and self-actualization.  The return to school for students should serve as an inspiration for all - the workforce, retirees, everyone.  It is a time when we can recall that innate curiosity that a rich classroom once brought out in us.

Most have heard the mantra that learning is a lifelong endeavour, but how many actually live by it?  It is sometimes permissible to coast along in one's job without challenging oneself any more than is absolutely necessary.  Many simply ride the wave of life without any regard for the vibrant ocean they are in.  Such an approach to life is not only unrewarding, but is also becoming increasingly risky: the typical work life for today's graduates often consists of several careers.  The days of resting on one's laurels are behind us.

When I step in front of my classroom, I concern myself not only with their success in the subject, but also that their hunger to learn persists beyond their school years.  A post-secondary degree enables graduates to better police their own learning.  It is a valuable service; one that must not be cheapened by making it free.


Liberal Whispers said...

Yikes, where to begin?
You state that the experience would be cheapened by letting everyone into school - just because there are no associated costs does not mean you would not have to meet the academic requirements to enter; furthermore, if more people are applying it actually increases competition and would raise the standard for entering - not diminish it. You also suggest that this would lead a state into debt - WHAT? why can't this be paid for upfront through taxation?

Also of note to consider.
- Current generation carrying more debt via post-secondary education limits their ability to enter the job market and immediately become consumers, thus limiting their ability to help drive the economy.
- Job market for this generation is more competitive (global market as opposed to previous generations where competition was more local/and limited), getting a job to pay off school debt is becoming more difficult as demographic bubble (boomers) are retiring later and some are simply staying at work - in other words not vacating the market so that they can be replaced by the new generation.
- Boomers are going to require increased health care and pension payments. These will be paid for by the current generation, which will be limited in their ability to do so if they are riddled with debt and face limited job prospects.
I don't think its much to ask for education to be paid for upfront so that they can become productive members of the economy and contribute later to boomers health and pensions.
This seems a fairer approach to me.

The Engineer said...

Dear Liberal Whispers,

I respect your opinion on this matter. I will add a few points to consider...

New graduates will have many different jobs over their careers - each one will require training. I don't think that a state should pay fully for everyone's education each time it is in their best interest to learn something.

Furthermore, the education system will undergo major changes over the coming decade, particularly at higher levels of education. You can already take courses at Harvard for free online. There are many ways to learn... some are free and others are not; the choice lies with the student.

I think higher education should be subsidized in part. Many students (though not all) will take their education less seriously if there is no price tag attached to it.

Liberal Whispers said...

You have certainly added some good points but there are a few other things to consider.
With an aging population and a rapidly changing economic world, education (and continually updating your education) will likely become part of the norm. Our aging population is becoming less likely than those that preceded it to retire - with subsequent generations even less so. Updating ones education as to continue to play a role in the workforce may become an essential (and possibly a necessity for older generations to continue to work). Should there be financial barriers put in the way here? Is it a likely scenario that someone close to retirement is going to invest heavily in education to continue to work, or are they more likely to simply retire. Removing the potential for financial burden would certainly alleviate this concern.
An additional point to consider is in relation to the pace of change. Do we want an economy that is capable of responding rapidly to changing economic circumstances? What if part of your EI went to subsidizing retraining so that you could attend school after losing employment, thus upgrading your credentials and re-entering the workforce. This would be extremely beneficial to businesses, especially during uncertain economic times as they would be more likely to invest in economies that are prepared for the new situation. It may actually assist in retaining businesses as well, as they can upgrade to new equipment/processes and procedures and have workers that can adapt to the new circumstances. Thus Canada could always be on the cutting edge of new developments, and a leader economically (in theory – I don’t know enough about this and would need to consult further with an economist).
In the long run what I am suggesting is that for young individuals it would provide a viable economic situation - starting life with no debt. And it would provide current workers with the opportunity to bounce back during a time of economic difficulty, as well as provide more overall stability in the economy. And, again, this would be beneficial to current workers as the upcoming generation will be carrying less personal debt and will be able to support the boomers heading into retirement.

Your part on additional training going online is great – and this should definitely be continued, but I fail to see how this supplants the argument for free tuition. There are indeed many ways in which to learn, but accreditation is important and dependent upon the field – and there are costs currently associated with this approach.

Also, the argument you made on students taking education less seriously because there is no associated cost is an interesting hypotheses. But the inverse can certainly be argued. I graduated last year and I can tell you that there is a sense of ownership amongst students within the classroom. The context I don’t have to attend/participate/listen (and in some instances respect the prof) because I pay for this – is abundant. I have also spoken with a number of professors whom have reiterated this point; that it feels less like a privilege for them to be there because there is an associated cost. If their education is funded publicly and more competitive to gain admittance then the power would shift back into the hands of the educators. I would also point out that the professors that I have spoken with on this issue support the idea of free tuition (an anecdotal instance I know, but worth consideration).

The Engineer said...

OK... One last reply for me (I teach at college and am busy with marking at the moment...).

A 60 year old that wishes to retrain in a completely new field should absolutely not be fully subsidized. Where is the return on investment for the economy? Note that retraining need not be a 3 or 4 yr degree. A one year certification at a college can go a long way towards starting a new career path.

When it comes to this debate, here is why the province of Quebec must not give free tuition. It has to do with the competition nearby... Quebec has so many wonderful services that cost the tax payer, but benefit young adults the most, such as cheap education and daycare. The problem is that people can live here until they turn 30 or 35, take full benefit of these social services, then move next door to Ontario where they are not taxed to hell. If everyone nearby had similar social services to Quebec, it could be feasible, but they do not. The borders are open for people to move around. Those that choose to stay here beyond their thirties suffer financially, and if things continue to diverge socially in QC vs elsewhere, there will be fewer and fewer people who choose to stay. Without their tax money, no social services.

I consider myself left-wing politically, but Quebec CANNOT keep adding services. They are in debt, and receive funding from other provinces to pay for the services they currently have. It is irresponsible. I find myself embarrassed to say I live somewhere so financially irresponsible.

OK, rant over. Need to get back to my work, after all, it is paid for by tax-payers.