Governments should stop funding higher education?

Everyone knows that publicly funded education is good. Right? Wait! Why?

  • “Schools have substantial non-financial benefits.” This argument assumes that people who forgo schooling are uneducated. It is weaker in the Wikipedia era. Kids are naturally curious, and they now have access to unlimited and inexpensive information. And this same argument could be used to justify free Internet for all, which would be considerably cheaper than free schools.
  • “If it costed hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete a Ph.D., nobody would do it.” Assuming that there is any demand at all for Ph.D.s, people with a Ph.D. would receive much higher salaries if fewer people have them. These higher salaries would entice more students to complete a Ph.D.
  • “Poor people are unable to get an education without government funding.” Students who can borrow the money, ought to be willing to do so if the expected return on their education investment far exceeds the interest rates charged by the bank or a private investor. True: Some students who show little promise, and have few ressources, would be unable to get an college degrees. Is that fair? Is it fair that only the most promising engineers get a job with Google? Is it fair that my wife is more beautiful than yours? Is it fair that kids go hungry in the richest country in the world?
  • “To make our corporations more competitive.” By funding schools, governments entice more students to study which artificially boosts the supply of graduates. In turn, this lowers the salaries of these same graduates. Corporations benefit from these lower wages while they only contribute a small fraction of the cost. Therefore, public schools are equivalent to subsidizing corporations. Any country that would stop funding higher education without a corresponding immigration policy, would see a rise in the wages of college graduates. This would be unfavorable to corporations which rely on college degrees to select employees.  But corporations do not have to hire college graduates. Most corporate jobs are a form of paper pushing. They could easily replace college degrees with less expensive certifications.

So,  why should the public fund schools?

Further reading: How and Why Government, Universities, and Industry Create Domestic Labor Shortages of Scientists and High-Tech Workers, A World Without Public School, What If Public Schools Were Abolished? and Self-interest and public funding of education.

Disclosure: I work for a public university. My kids attend a public school.

33 thoughts on “Governments should stop funding higher education?”

  1. “Some students who show little promise, and have few ressources, would be unable to get an education. Is that fair? Is it fair that only the most promising engineers get a job with Google? Is it fair that my wife is more beautiful than yours? Is it fair that kids go hungry in the richest country in the world?”

    The argument equals education with hunger with Google’s hiring modus operandi with beatifulness. All belonging to different level of needs according to Maslow.

    First two are way more important than the last two, one of them been a constitutional right in many countries and the other having an international institution explicitly dedicated to it (FAO).
    That’s why governments spend money both on food and education for the poor.

  2. For the first couple of seconds I thought you were being sarcastic and had a good laugh, but then realized that you’re actually being serious.

    As for your first argument, it seems like you are suggesting that people will naturally pick up information if it is available. What about other extremely important functions of schools: e.g. Giving structure to information, and giving people opportunity to interact and go together through a curriculum? It almost looks like you are suggesting that going to school is about as good as browsing Wikipedia.

    Your third argument comes down to: “Life is not fair, too bad”. I’ll just spare myself the time to elaborate on this…

    Product of an educational system is a well-rounded individual with a breadth of knowledge who is ready to take on many challenges, varied as they may be in our uncertain future. There will never be a shortage of these individuals, and we need as many as we can get in our society.

  3. I almost completely disagree with this, as I think all levels of education should be free, or nearly so. Burdening young folk with debt at the time in their lives where they earn the least is harmful (except to banks). Every able kid that wants to learn, and can earn a place academically, should be able to go.

    On the other hand, I am not found of our (US) current compulsory system of education – at all. Going into the local high school, and finding posters that shout “Obey!” and “Conform!” is … creepy. Forcing kids into a pattern that they hate … there must be a better way.

    Oh. And before Wikipedia and the Internet there was free and plentiful information at this thing called a “library” – though not quite so convenient.

  4. @Andrej

    I am not advocating the end of public education as the disclaimer should make clear. But I am unconvinced that it is beneficial.

    @Poloni

    Harvard and MIT would work just as well without government support.

    @Julian

    So, governments are right to artificially lower the lifetime income of people with Ph.D.s? That is fair?

  5. The first argument, as Andrej pointed out above, assumes that children will pick up information, and do it efficiently, just because it is available. It also assumes that young people will know what information that will benefit them most. I think these assumptions are completely wrong: they have to with lacking long-term perspective in young people, lack of knowledge about what is important to them because of being young, and probably a bunch of other things that I don’t know because I haven’t thought hard and long enough about the topic.

    I’m not saying that academically educated middle-aged people will know what’s best for young people to learn and how it should be structured. But I think they are less bad at it than the youngsters themselves.

    As for the second argument, a publicly funded higher education system requires publicly funded PhD schools, as the state can’t afford to pay high salaries to PhDs.

  6. @Paul

    Turns out even though I conceptually knew how to sort a list, actually writing down the code and getting it to work was a crucial learning stage.

    Who would you rather hire to write iPad games? The college graduate who took programming classes, or the kid who wrote a few good iPad games on his own? Of course, you might want the college graduate who wrote iPad games, but suppose there is no such candidate.

    If we don’t have something better for somebody to do then study the ancient Greeks, why wouldn’t we make it easy for them to do so?

    That is a very good point. Except that we are favoring professional degrees more than ever. I don’t see any increase of interest for ancient Greek among university administrators.

  7. @Greg

    At the end of my post, I refer to an article which makes this point:

    Jorge Soares, Self-interest and public funding of education, Journal of Public Economics, Volume 87, Issues 3-4, March 2003.

    However, I submit to you that Wikipedia, Khan Academy and Quora are a new “knowledge” infrastructure. They have multipliers which are much, much greater than one. The benefits of Wikipedia, compared to the cost to the public, is nearly infinite.

    Oddly enough, there is no talk of public funding for these ventures. What is the logic in funding schools and libraries, but not funding Wikipedia or Quora with the same money? Of not offering free Internet access to the citizens?

    Why do we pay high school teachers, but not people who post high quality learning content on YouTube?

    The only answer I can see is inertia. We created a system to train factory employees. The factories are gone, and there are better communication techniques then talking in a classroom, but to rethink education would be hard and there are strong vested interests in continuing with the current system (hint: my own job depends on it).

    (To be fair, the American government recently did precisely what I suggest: fund free and open learning ressources. See http://chronicle.com/article/2-Year-Colleges-Get-Details-of/126006/)

  8. @Greg

    to clarify, are you now arguing that public education spending has significant value, but that other, newer education investments have more value?

    Some of it might be a public good, but I am unconvinced that all of it is.

    My understanding of your original post was that you were saying that education investment is not a public good nor does it have significant returns.

    I am saying that I am unconvinced that our current system should be publicly funded.

    I hope you will agree that I don’t have to be “against” or “for” public funding for education as it stands. Maybe some of it is good, maybe some is bad. I am hoping to debate it.

    You are now arguing that education investment has high returns, but Khan Academy and Wikipedia have higher returns. Is that correct?

    I think that it is worth asking the question, at the very least, no?

    See Stephen Downes’ comment.

    I want to make sure you are conceding the point that education spending is a public good with very high ROI before we move on to the question of whether there are other, newer education investments that might be even better

    It is difficult question.

    Consider graduate studies. Both in Canada and in the USA, science graduate students are generously funded by the government (e.g., by the NSF).

    Is this necessarily a good thing? The studies justifying it appear to be very bad.

  9. An anecdote: as a youth, I tried to teach myself programming. While I did pick up a few BASIC dialects, reading Java/C++ books/webpages never worked. When I went to school, I picked the languages up very quickly. The difference? On my own I’d get to the end of the chapter exercises, think a bit, convince myself I knew how to solve that and move on. In school I actually had to write the code. Turns out even though I conceptually knew how to sort a list, actually writing down the code and getting it to work was a crucial learning stage. Thus, though children are curious, they don’t always have the correct pedagogical instincts. Also related is the Dunning-Kruger effect, where a child may prematurely decide they’ve mastered a topic without an outside certification.

    Also, doesn’t this return us to your previous post about declining job prospects in an increasingly automated world? If we’re running short on jobs, why would we attempt to enlarge the worker pool by removing students? The idea that profit motives will continue to bring in students removes huge swathes of the traditional academic world (History? English? Sociology?) If we don’t have something better for somebody to do then study the ancient Greeks, why wouldn’t we make it easy for them to do so? Knowledge enlargement for its own sake is one of the few fields we can continuously grow and have a positive effect on the world.

  10. Two incompatible visions of how the system works:
    “Product of an educational system is a well-rounded individual with a breadth of knowledge who is ready to take on many challenges”

    and “We created a system to train factory employees”

    I’d argue that undergraduate education is a huge win politically, since it tends to make people less authoritarian. It’s really a shame though that we try to send people to university that would be better off economically learning a trade.

    We’d actually all be economically better off, since we would stop depressing wages for knowledge workers too. As to the heavy subsidies for graduate and advanced degrees? Complete insanity, except if you benefit from low wages.

  11. Aside from moral issues, which abound in this debate, I think you are underestimating the extent to which education, like infrastructure, is a public good which benefits people, society, the economy, and the government.

    For example, the Congressional Budget Office summarizes several studies by estimating that the return on investment (ROI) of education spending is 10%/year.

    http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/91xx/doc9136/AppendixA.2.1.shtml

    Likewise, other studies have estimated the multiplier (which is the NPV of gains from education spending compared to the cost) at significantly greater than 1.

    Purely as a public good, purely as an economic investment, purely as an investment in future tax receipts, public education makes sense, as does infrastructure.

  12. @Daniel

    Yes, governments lower the cost and therefore lifetime income of PhD holders by increasing the supply, which also means that they make it possible for more people to get a PhD. And yes, I think this is basically fair. I accept a lower salary in return for being able to work on exciting ideas and problems that might not be of any immediate use to industry, and publishing the results of my research freely.

  13. @Daniel, to clarify, are you now arguing that public education spending has significant value, but that other, newer education investments have more value?

    That’s a very different argument, so I want to be clear. My understanding of your original post was that you were saying that education investment is not a public good nor does it have significant returns. You are now arguing that education investment has high returns, but Khan Academy and Wikipedia have higher returns. Is that correct?

    If so, we’re having a very different debate, one that looks more like asking why the government doesn’t invest directly in startups because we can point to a few startups yielded very high returns to investors. We could go ahead and have that debate, but I want to make sure you are conceding the point that education spending is a public good with very high ROI before we move on to the question of whether there are other, newer education investments that might be even better.

  14. I don’t have any strongly formed thoughts on this, except my gut disagreement and the fact that the points you outline include a lot of assumptions about how markets work and how people’s rationality that may be true in specific situations but are more than likely generally false.

    It’s not ALL about direct output and the slope of demand curves.

    That is, naturally curious and entrepreneurial kids may invent iPad games, or new ways of selling drugs.

  15. I agree that public education needs defending, in light of recent developments that make public education available to all.

    My argument is that we should resent the _default_ to one where people acquire and manage their own educations. Then, the primary role of government is in ensuring that this default is available to all:
    – free and open online publication of all curricular and support material
    – perhaps the maintenance of community education centres (much the way government supports community hockey rinks, community libraries, etc) with meeting and lab facilities, workshops, etc. Mississauga’s ‘Living Arts Centre’ is a great example
    – enablement of a network of affordable & accessible assessment mechanisms

    Beyond that, provision of educational services should be on an as-needed basis, with the objective being to ensure equity of access. Simply abandoning the field to private providers creates a system whereby only the wealthy are even able to qualify for degrees; in such a scenario, not having a degree becomes once again a barrier to mobility as it I used as a proxy for keeping the poor people out. Government educational support services operate to ensure that this doesn’t become the case. These services would be provided using mechanisms akin to other ‘intervention’ services, such as medical and hospital;, fire and emergency, etc.
    – remedial learning support, literacy training, etc.
    – special assistance to people with disabilities
    – special provisions for people living in remote & rural areas
    etc.

    Additionally, a market for educational services should exist, which provides additional support and services; it is imperative that the providers of this market explicitly agree to a social contract such that they not abridge the fundamental right of people to equitable access to education, & the greater their profits, the greater the amount they themselves must put into funding public education.

    So – that’s the argument and the mechanism. Support for education is necessary in order to ensure lack of education does not become a barrier to social mobility, however, provision of education defaults to self-management, with mechanisms and supports in order to ensure the equity provision.

    I just wrote a slightly longer paper articulating this position, but I can’t release it just yet.

  16. @Daniel, perhaps we should start though, at the fact that education spending has a 10%/year ROI overall. That means that, on average, public education spending is a big win.

    Then we can say that we could get even higher returns by reducing or eliminating some parts of education spending that have lower ROI. For example, you might want to argue that graduate education has lower ROI than primary and secondary education spending. If true, perhaps we should be spending more on the latter.

    We also could discuss whether there are changes to how primary and secondary education should be done that might increase the ROI even further. For example, Stephen Wolfram had an excellent TED talk arguing for changes to teaching math

    http://blog.wolfram.com/2010/11/23/conrad-wolframs-ted-talk-stop-teaching-calculating-start-teaching-math/

    and, in particular, teaching calculus earlier and focusing on modeling and understanding problems rather than grinding through calculations.

    What I am objecting to, though, is the implication in your original post that public education spending doesn’t yield high returns. I think the evidence is that it does. While anything can be improved, the starting point for this discussion should be how can public education yield even bigger gains than it already does, not should we stop public education.

  17. @Carr

    Also, if I might dare be so bold, I would like to submit a request for your consideration as to whether perhaps you might talk out of just one side of your mouth: for example, titling this blog-entry “Governments should stop funding higher education” and then whipping out the comment “@Andrej I am not advocating the end of public education as the disclaimer should make clear.” gives the impression — of course I am sure this is not your intention at all, it is only an impression — that you are muddying the waters to make them look deep.

    I used a provocative title and the content of the post was also provocative. It is cheap trick, I admit.

    Are we discussing public education for children up to their teenage years?

    My arguments apply to all of education, but this is a higher education blog.

    I don’t see how ‘knowledge infrastructure’ bears on the issue of public funding for education

    Greg argued that we should fund education because “education, like infrastructure, is a public good.” I argued that Wikipedia is also a public good.

    The notion that online video tutorials and websites can *replace* face-to-face human interaction is of course ludicrous: these are excellent resources and aids, but not replacements.

    Given a choice, which would you pick:

    (1) A conventional education for your kids, but without access to the Web or to social media during their lifetime.

    (2) No formal education, but free access to the Web at all times, forever.

    I know which one I would pick.

    Without public education, who would create and curate Wikipedia and the Khan Academy?

    The idea that people who are unschooled are uneducated is a prejudice.

    There is no shortage of high school drop-outs who write books, do research, become widely recognized intellectuals, write research papers, become billionaires, and so on.

    Meanwhile, there are countless college graduates who could never write a book. There are countless high school graduates who could not read a book.

  18. Are we discussing public education for children up to their teenage years? Or are we discussing public education for adults? I think many of the claims and counter-claims on this blog article may hinge on this. I presume we are only discussing adults. But then there are comments about paying high-school teachers and the Khan Academy and so on? — some clarification would be productive.

    Quoting one of your comments: “However, I submit to you that Wikipedia, Khan Academy and Quora are a new ‘knowledge’ infrastructure. They have multipliers which are much, much greater than one. The benefits of Wikipedia, compared to the cost to the public, is nearly infinite.” I don’t see how ‘knowledge infrastructure’ bears on the issue of public funding for education; I believe that it is a red herring, seemingly relevant but in fact unrelated to the discussion you claim to desire. The notion that online video tutorials and websites can *replace* face-to-face human interaction is of course ludicrous: these are excellent resources and aids, but not replacements. Even supposing counter-factually that they *were* replacements, how would that be relevant to whether or not education should have public funding? Without public education, who would create and curate Wikipedia and the Khan Academy?

    Also, if I might dare be so bold, I would like to submit a request for your consideration as to whether perhaps you might talk out of just one side of your mouth: for example, titling this blog-entry “Governments should stop funding higher education” and then whipping out the comment “@Andrej I am not advocating the end of public education as the disclaimer should make clear.” gives the impression — of course I am sure this is not your intention at all, it is only an impression — that you are muddying the waters to make them look deep.

  19. @Paul

    Nobody studies Calculus.

    It is simply not true that people avoid difficult things when they are self-directed. There are countless people who learn to use computers, program them, network them and so on, without any school forcing them to learn it. They do it because computers do cool stuff. In the process, they learn Boolean logic, they learn about integer rings (integers in C behave like integers in Z/2^L Z), they learn about trees, data structures, and so on.

    Granted, computers got easier to use, but by the standards of 1960s, what most people do today with computers would appear extraordinary. An expert from 1960s would ask: how did all these people train for this new technology?

    Meanwhile, the failures of directed instruction are all around us. I simply could not learn English in classes. I took English up until college, and I could still not buy a stamp in a store. Yet I always got As, but the grade did not reflect my actual competence. It is only when I needed to know English (because I moved to Toronto) that I learned it. I am not alone, many people cannot learn foreign languages in classes.

    How many people took mathematics all through High School, and could not do a simple rule of three?

    Many people who take programming classes fail to become good programmer, while plenty of self-directed learners become expert programmers.

    The self-directed individual who’s going to learn no matter what obstacles stand in his way certainly exists, but I don’t think he’s very common.

    That cannot be true. Human beings are wired to learn all the time. If what you are suggesting were true, people would go to school, graduate and then they would stall at that level for the rest of their life. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that people learn all the time, without the schools.

    So most people would have had to learn to use email through special training programs. (Email looks easy now, but present the ideas to someone fromthe 1960s and they would be puzzled.)

    That’s just not true. If anything, what we learn in a directed way is the tip of the iceberg of everything we learn.


  20. Given a choice, which would you pick:

    (1) A conventional education for your kids, but without access to the Web or to social media during their lifetime.

    (2) No formal education, but free access to the Web at all times, forever.

    Excellent question. I would pick 2 as well, but that comes with a strong caveat. I only choose 2 because I view myself as a capable teacher, and I think myself+the internet would teach better than the local elementary school. If #2 involved sending my child to the computer for a few hours each day with an instruction to learn, but no outside guidance, I’d switch it to 1.

    I’ve known a few people who spent time at self-directed learning schools. Granted, this was before Wikipedia, but the consensus (among the small sample I’ve met) seems to be that most children spend the day socializing, or knitting, or playing games. Nobody studies Calculus. If there is an inkling of educational drive, it usually manifests itself in very limited topics: they’ll read literature but avoid any math,science or history.

    The self-directed individual who’s going to learn no matter what obstacles stand in his way certainly exists, but I don’t think he’s very common. If someone displays that aptitude, by all means give them freedom to grow. But even then, a teacher to help guide the way is very valuable. I think most students plopped in front of a computer and left to their own devices will fail to learn.

  21. @Paul

    And software engineers are relatively in demand right now, why does America have ~10% unemployment?

    You can outsource programming jobs to India for 5$/hour very easily. There are several good Web sites built to facilitate such outsourcing. So there is no shortage of people “who can program”.

  22. It is simply not true that people avoid difficult things when they are self-directed. There are countless people who learned to use computers, program them, network them and so on, without any school forcing them to learn it.

    But are those people usual? My impression is that programming is skill possessed by a vast minority of individuals. And given the number of families with computers, that’s one of the lowest barrier to entry skills to learn. If you want to be a self-taught chemist there are suddenly expenses and safety concerns.

    I can’t say for certain whether it’s true or not that the average person will teach themselves Calculus when given encouragement and free access to educational resources. But there have been quite a few attempts in our lifetimes to provide that sort of environment. I’m far from an expert, maybe somebody can provide other evidence, but whenever somebody has related self-directed school experiences to me, it’s been in the context of “what a waste, we didn’t learn anything.”

    So most people would have had to learn to use email through special training programs

    My father never learned. And software engineers are relatively in demand right now, why does America have ~10% unemployment? Shouldn’t the unemployed have learned in demand skills by now?

    I don’t doubt we have an ability to pick up skills that we use: as you say, speaking a language is the best way to learn it, people do learn to use the programs they need to to accomplish work. But there’s a big leap from learning to email for a job, and children actively teaching themselves an entire curriculum. And on the job training is very often structured or mentored: when computers were introduced into the workplace, they did come with training and manuals, not “here’s this magic box, figure out how it let’s you do your job better”.

    I don’t disagree that simple forms of learning always occur. I don’t disagree that some people are capable of significant self-learning. My own experiences in life, though, make me skeptical that a meaningful fraction of my second grade class would have picked up physics through Wikipedia.

  23. @Ben

    In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to say that people don’t go to university to learn. That’s just a byproduct. People go to university because they are told in high school that they need a degree to get a good job and get paid.

    Yes. Much of what a college degree is about is a certification that human ressources departments can process with confidence. Just as nobody gets fired for buying from IBM, nobody gets fired for hiring a college graduate. It can be used as a filter.

    But we could just as easily come up with different certifications, and indeed, we do!

    the Dean of Graduate Studies paid a visit to one of my classes and started talking about how we should apply for the Masters program because employers don’t like hiring people with only a Bachelor’s degree any more.

    I am sure that he is entirely unbiased.

    But there is some truth in what he says: we are living through some degree inflation.

    I would not be surprised if a Ph.D. became expected of high school teachers in the next 20 years.

  24. You seem to have suggested only half the solution. If I were to respond to your posts question, “Why should the public fund schools?” I’d say, “Because that’s what the public sees as an acceptable post-secondary education institution.”

    You have a good point that alternatives exist which may provide a viable education of a quality equal or superior to that provided by university. OK. However, this does not change the fact that people with university degrees are perceived to be more qualified, more successful, and more intelligent than people who lack university degrees. In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to say that people don’t go to university to learn. That’s just a byproduct. People go to university because they are told in high school that they need a degree to get a good job and get paid. I myself am close to completing my Bachelor’s degree, and the Dean of Graduate Studies paid a visit to one of my classes and started talking about how we should apply for the Masters program because employers don’t like hiring people with only a Bachelor’s degree any more.

    Whether or not this is the case is beside the point. There are, of course, plenty of people without degrees of any sort making a successful way in this world. Nevertheless, the perception exists, and the propaganda continues.

    So by all means, cut government funding from higher education–but don’t do it until we have altered the association between “university” and “well-educated.” Alternative methods of education may indeed be viable, but until they are perceived as viable, we cannot eliminate public funding.

    That being said, I’d prefer the opposite (have the government fund more post-secondary education, not less, including alternative methods).

  25. “True: Some students who show little promise, and have few ressources, would be unable to get an college degrees. Is that fair? Is it fair that only the most promising engineers get a job with Google? Is it fair that my wife is more beautiful than yours? Is it fair that kids go hungry in the richest country in the world?”

    I can’t believe I’m reading this from such a respected academic…
    So, because the world is unfair, the opportunity to introduce some justice in this world is a complete waste of time or money or both ? because your parents are not rich enough, you should be punished as well and stick to your condition forever ? Not to mention that if you’re sick, too bad, your parents are too poor. If the state doesn’t fund school, it’s not going to provide a health system either…

    I must be biased because I’m French and here, education has always been almost free but I still believe that money should never be the discriminant factor between two equally deserving children. This is probably the only case where the state can make the difference as opposed to one’s inherited beauty…

    (btw, I also think that this post was entitled to be provocative)

    Djamé

  26. @Djamé

    According to Wikipedia, over 5% of the French population lives in poverty:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_percentage_of_population_living_in_poverty

    Is that fair?

    What would be fairer? Financial help to the poor so that the poverty rate is lesser (or zero), or a free college education to those who qualify?

    In my opinion, there is not a strong moral argument in favor of public education. Not while the poverty rate is above zero. There are fairer and more direct ways to help the poor.

  27. As molten_tofu pointed out, economic theory based on rational individuals acting out of self-interest may be elegant, but when you look at a wide range of real-life issues, what you see is that complete information is a very rare thing and that the supposedly-rational actors aren’t all that rational after all. (Most of the time, anyway.)

    As for borrowing to pay for education, credit constraints are a very real problem and those would need to be addressed properly if we care about giving everyone a fair shot at a decent education. We usually focus on higher education, but what about primary and secondary education? Shouldn’t everyone get a real shot at decent primary and secondary education too regardless of their socioeconomic status? As far as I know, there are very few options available to poor parents who want to send their child to a great (but expensive) private school. I am not saying that public schools are bad, but I do think that some private schools are significantly better (and worth the money). The personal and social returns on the investment may well be worth it in terms of lifetime income, taxes paid and other side benefits of getting a better education, but what is difficult to quantify is often simply ignored. It’s much less of a headache that way, I guess, and it does make the analysis more objective, but it can also make it fatally flawed if the hard-to-quantify stuff is significant.

    Greg suggests that we look at the differences in ROI for various types of investments in education to better target the public dollars spent. This should be at the core of public policy-making, but I have rarely seen the various levels of government in Canada do it the way they should. It is certainly the case in education across Canada that we are not getting the best value for the money invested and that we could do a whole lot better. Regardless of whether our public investment in higher education is worth it the way we do it now, it would certainly be worth it if we did it properly. Now the question is: What would that look like?

    In my opinion, the single most important function of an education system is providing the guidance that learners – and young learners in particular – need. You can learn a lot on your own if you have access to the right tools, but discussion with peers learning the same thing has the potential – not always realized – to help you learn faster. Similarly, direct contact with an expert in the field – and by that I mean actual two-way discussion rather than just listening to the expert’s lectures – can significantly speed up the learner’s progress. You could learn kung fu by watching kung fu movies and practicing in your living room, but if you must take your revenge against some evil ninja for the murder of your older brother, you go to the Shaolin temple at the top of the mountain and learn from the old master who lives there. Because mentoring has very real value.

    Even when all the information you need to properly educate yourself is freely available on the internet, the mentoring of an expert will help you navigate the almost-infinite sea of information and focus on the things that represent the best use of your time considering your objectives (as understood by your mentor).

    Much of what we now see in terms of educational technology – and how we use it – is in many ways an online version of the textbook. You may be able to read chapters in an order other than the one in which they are presented, and you may be able to skip those that aren’t relevant to your interests and/or needs, but fundamentally, the book will not adapt to your particular learning needs. The guidance is offers is rigid, fixed. What we need, instead, is adaptable, (automatically) personalized guidance akin to what you would get from direct contact with an expert in the field. We need an automated version of the thesis supervisor.

    I believe that publicly funding the creation and development of such open learning tools represents fantastic value for the money. Such tools would allow more people to learn more on their own, without direct contact with professors. It would also free professors from low-value-added activities like giving lectures and allow them to spend their time on higher-value-added activities, such as developing specialized materials covering topics on which courses were not previously available or covering old content from a new perspective. (In other words, you could say that professors would be writing new entries on Wikipedia and expanding existing ones instead of wasting time reading those entries to students in a classroom each semester, one group at a time, i.e. write once rather than say a thousand times.)

    Daniel asks: “Why do we pay high school teachers, but not people who post high quality learning content on YouTube?
    The only answer I can see is inertia. We created a system to train factory employees. The factories are gone, and there are better communication techniques then talking in a classroom, but to rethink education would be hard and there are strong vested interests in continuing with the current system (hint: my own job depends on it).”

    I very much agree. A complete re-thinking of education is needed now that we have easy access to tools like Google search and Wikipedia, and, in my opinion, the number 1 obstacle to such a re-shaping of education in Canada is not technological. I believe it is first and foremost a policy problem. The funding formulas used to allocate public funds to higher education institutions, in particular, are encouraging the latter to avoid open education like the pest. Some universities are active in the field, but they very much do so **despite** public policy rather than because of it. And actually, from what I’ve seen, open education is usually the work of a few select individuals within educational institutions and most do not get much support from the institution that employs them. Some prestigious universities are offering open education resources of their own free will, but one could argue that they do so to trumpet the quality of their real product: a very expensive on-campus education.

    I’ll leave aside for now the question of whether sites like WIkipedia should be publicly funded and how we should choose the sites we fund. Those resources obviously are public goods, but not all public goods need to be publicly funded. Some are provided by private individuals for philanthropic (or other) reasons. Allowing citizens to pick and choose which public-good organizations to support through private donations has its potential advantages too. (Such an arrangement might be more responsive to end user tastes, for example.) It’s a complex topic.

    It seems fairly obvious to me though that there should be significant public funds invested open education, open science, open data and open source software development. Those approaches are complementary and all of them represent sound economic policy given the particular cost structure of the digital economy. Combining all of them generates network effects where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (in much the same way a bicycle is more than a pile of bicycle parts).

    Ben Babcock says: “So by all means, cut government funding from higher education–but don’t do it until we have altered the association between “university” and “well-educated.” Alternative methods of education may indeed be viable, but until they are perceivedas viable, we cannot eliminate public funding.”

    The answer to that is to split education – i.e. the teaching, studying and learning – from the testing and recognition of knowledge and skills. For example, pay 1000$ to attend the lectures (if you need them) and/or 100$ to sit the exam. You don’t need to attend the lectures to get a passing grade. You just need to master the content. Where and how you learn it is your own problem. Learning it by attending the lectures offered at the university is but one of many valid options.

  28. @Ludovic

    (…) school is the only place where we learn to live together (rights, duties, etc…). I don’t think that Internet or wikipedia can learn to my kid how to respect, and live with people with different ideas, religions, etc…

    About 1.5 million kids in the USA are home schooled. I doubt these kids grow up to be ignorant of their rights or civic duties. (It is less popular in France, but home schooling is legal there as well, see http://laia.asso.free.fr/chif1.html.)

    Of course, “Wikipedia” is not teaching, not anymore than a textbook can teach you anything. Wikipedia (and related ressources) are merely enablers. The important difference with Wikipedia, when compared to textbooks, is that it is available everywhere for free (given that you have Internet access).

    If you don’t have free universities, you will loose many important humans knowledge. You will obtain a world of traders and computer scientists, without sociology, history, archeology….

    I don’t think that is true. I don’t even think it is true that all history departments would close down. Some of the best schools (Harvard or Stanford) are very expensive. Yet they have history and sociology departments. They would do just fine without government subsidies.

    But even assuming that all universities were to close down, for some reason. I do not think it would mean the end of scholarship, there are countless blogs, wikis, e-books and so on pursuing scholarship in one form or another. What you need, mostly, for good scholarship is free time. And people have a lot of free time once they stop watching television.

  29. First I want to point out that removing public funding will practically ensure that poor kids will never get a higher education (apart from the smartest of the smartest or most athletic of athletes who might get funding; counting on banks to give money to poor students is like counting on banks right now to give loans to the poor: not going to happen).

    I don’t agree that the over-production of graduate and undergraduate students is a result of public funding. In fact, it seems to me that, as public funding in the province of Quebec has gone down, so the number of students at universities has shot up. Universities need some source of money and if it’s not coming from the government, it will have to come from students.

    I suppose that one way of solving this problem is letting universities charge a huge amount of money for education, as Harvard and Stanford do. That will certainly limit access to a university degree to a small group of people. Or we could limit funding to areas where we most need graduates, like medicine. If you want to study the arts or humanities and end up with a degree that is practically worthless for employment, then you should probably be charged at the highest rate possible; this would ensure that only people who can afford it get that kind of degree 🙂

    On a more serious note, I do believe that learning to think independently, learning how to learn, and learning how to sift through facts and figure out which to trust and which to discard is probably best taught in a school or at university. I don’t think that these are skills that you can pick up reading the internet. It’s a pity our schools aren’t really set up to teach this kind of thinking.

  30. @Daniel: In France, all children from 5 to 16 have to go to school. That’s why schools are free. It is difficult to force someone to pay schools if he does not have enough money ! It is based on the idea that school is the only place where we learn to live together (rights, duties, etc…). I don’t think that Internet or wikipedia can learn to my kid how to respect, and live with people with different ideas, religions, etc…

    The reason for free universities is a little bit different. Consider a 100 000 dollars PhD. OK, if this PhD helps you to have a very good salary, then this price is not a real problem. But what will happen concerning PhD students in sociology, psychology, history where the salaray will remain low (mainly because, if you make a thesis about some strange things happened five hundred years ago in Mongoly, you will never find a job in a private company) ? If you don’t have free universities, you will loose many important humans knowledge. You will obtain a world of traders and computer scientists, without sociology, history, archeology….

    What about asking students to pay their studies depending on their income (typically, the salary of their parents) ? So you will obtain free schools for poor people and expensive schools for rich ones ? Actually, this is done by collecting taxes proportionnal to each family income.

  31. Given a choice, which would you pick:
    (1) A conventional education for your kids, but without access to the Web or to social media during their lifetime.
    (2) No formal education, but free access to the Web at all times, forever.
    I know which one I would pick.

    Great point! I agree; I would pick the later… if we were living in a world where there were only two choices! Thankfully though, I am not limited to just one or the other. I realize the point is if there were only two choices, but why would you purposefully limit yourself to that? Why would you limit students to that? Would it not be better to allow them to have both? I would, can, and have chosen to have a conventional education along with unlimited, free access to the web, at all times, and I will forever; I think anybody really thinking would choose the same.

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