Friday, 11 November 2011

An interesting case of caught in the middle

Yesterday Quebec students staged a large protest against tuition hikes.  As a director on Concordia's Graduate Student Association (GSA) representing the business school, I find myself torn, both in how to represent my constituency and in how I feel about the situation.

In general, business students are less likely to support a student strike than other grad students, because they're the ones in training to be managers.  I've encountered people who were both for and against the tuition hikes.  The ones for the hikes note that someone has to pay for the system and that tuition isn't even pegged to inflation in Quebec.  The ones against argue that as a percentage it's a huge increase and that it's a difficult burden to bear. 

International students have been hit harder than local students, some of whom had a surprise increase of over ten thousand dollars on a week's notice last year.  But many in the business faculty didn't want to make a public issue of it, but preferred to negotiate privately with the school for relief.  Such is the nature of the business school.

On the one hand: Arguments against tuition hikes - An issue of policy

One question I've heard being asked by some students but not so much by the media is "what do we want the education system to look like?" I think this is a better question to ask than "who should be footing the bill for a student's education?"  It frames the issue as a societal problem as opposed to an individual problem.

Comparing tuition to that of Ontario or, God forbid, the USA assumes that the decision to pursue higher education doesn't affect the public at large.  It's easy to get caught up in the fact that tuition is very low in Quebec as opposed to the rest of Canada or the USA.  It's the most cited argument in favour of increases.  The assumption is that students are getting an enormous handout as it is, and are just being greedy wanting more and more.  But this is a distraction.  Government tuition policy is not merely a problem of individual students, it is a question of what our society needs to grow.

Today more than ever, higher education is becoming a requirement for employment.  For most jobs a bachelor's degree is neither a right nor a privilege, it's an expectation.  Increasingly a master's degree is becoming the norm.  It seems that education needs to be accessible for the economy to prosper in the long run.  If you want a larger percentage of the population to take on extra training and bear the opportunity cost of doing so, you need incentives to do that.  And let's be honest, scholarships aren't enough to solve the problem.  Scholarships are an extra application, an extra step of work, and there aren't enough to go around. 

Dealing with large number of people is fundamentally different than dealing with individuals.  Assuming the attitude that individual students should pull themselves up by their bootstraps will not help a societal problem.  If the government wants a greater percentage of the population to get higher education, it has to adopt policies that make it easier to access.  If the government wants higher quality education, it has to adopt policies that ensure universities have the right incentives and motivators to provide the type of education that is needed.  If the government wants more art students or more science students, or more engineers, they have to give incentives for people to persue these degrees.  That's the level of control the government has, and I think it's a valid concern that the government is not seeing education in this way. 

On the other hand - The trouble with cheap education

The other side of the coin is that education is a bubble.  Do you really need a bachelor's degree to do an entry level office job?  Probably not from a knowledge point of view.  Educational requirements are going up across the board because it's being promoted as necessary.  It's not just Quebec, it's everywhere.  People taking on enormous debt because they feel they have to just to get their BA, and then working as receptionists.  People spending decades in school to get their PhD, only to wind up unemployed.  Sure we could blame them for not planning ahead, but the reality is that this is a systemic problem.  Again, policy.

I think that making education free or even dirt cheap as it is in some countries will aggravate this problem.  Ironically, increasing tuition won't solve the problem either; the US has the same issue, just with more debt attached.  University degrees are not valued they way they once were because they are no longer rare.  Changing the price won't affect this very much because of the availability of financing.  Degrees are not rare because universities get funding based on the number of students who attend, so they have no reason not to pump people through the system.

It's a complex, systemic problem and I don't think I can solve it in one blog post, but the solution probably lies in thinking backwards from the kind of society and economy we want to have and the kind of policies and incentives that will produce that kind of system.


Post a Comment