Education disadvantage

If a cash-strapped province or state had to make painful cuts to public services, the immediately noticeable effect would be the outright elimination of some of them.
One would not think of, say, laying off a fraction of all bus drivers and asking the remaining ones to work longer hours, in order to keep all existing bus routes active — some would be phased out, based on various considerations of priority, in order to minimize the inconvenience to denizens, while continuing to offer as much of the original transportation as possible. Some people, however, would have to go to work or to the grocery store in some other, less convenient or more expensive way.

The same would be true for health care. One would not expect, following a round of layoffs, to preserve the existing number of hospital beds, by making doctors and nurses spared by the layoffs cut down significantly the amount of time devoted to each patient. Patients would face longer waiting times, and/or the concrete possibility of having to seek assistance further away than they would have desired, or resort to private care (if available and within reach of their pockets).
The same, obvious remarks apply to all public services; in all cases, consequences of reduced public spending are easily predictable, will hit some harder than others, and are understood and accepted as inevitable fact if life by anyone with common sense. Or, are they ?
Well, when it comes to public education, especially university education, things are not so clear-cut.

The thing with education is, there are two sides to it, easily distinguishable in principle but often confused in practice, especially in official public discourse (i.e., that of politicians). There is the Education (in my mind with capital E), which is of course about the acquisition of in-depth, superior knowledge of a specific area of human activity, but also, more generally, about the intellectual enrichment of the individual, the development of a critical mind and of a broader, global vision. Now, a key tenet here is that a broadly educated society, is a better society to live in, for many different reasons [0].
This is what ultimately justifies the investment, on the part of society, in a robust system of public education. It is not dissimilar, in many regards, to the benefit that we all derive, for example, from public transportation — not just those who utilize it.

And then there is the education which consists of credentials, degrees, certificates, all deemed by society as important, cogent signs of individual achievement, competence, strive for excellence, and generally rewarded with better or more desirable employment, higher income and increased standards of living of those who sport them. I am not wanting to downplay this second aspect, which is of course all-important for the individual students (and for the parents who pay for the education of their offspring).
And make no mistake, this facet of education is not entirely without some implications on society at large. Still, I think that the payoff, here, is largely for the person to whom the degree is granted. It would be difficult, I believe, to predicate the whole public education enterprise, based on this second “consumer product” aspect alone. If education were to be regarded as a good that benefits almost exclusively the purchaser, like an automobile, a computer, or apparel, then why should in a market economy the government be in the business of delivering it ?
Why not let the market take care of it, just like for all those other marketable goods ? Why have public education at all ?
The answer to that, I maintain, is the massive, measurable impact that a highly educated citizenry and workforce have on the quality of life and standards of living of an entire region, state, province, country, which is why no sane politician would ever seriously champion the elimination of public education, or its replacement (to any significant degree) with largely privately run schools.

Is there a problem, though ?

I do believe the two sides of education discussed above to be highly correlated, to go together — for the most part, that is, not entirely, and sometimes they may actually be in conflict with one another. Perhaps never does such a conflict become apparent as when one tries and assess, by some quantitative measure, the effectiveness of a public university system. By and large, the figures cited by University presidents and provosts, secretaries and ministers of education, virtually anyone engaging in such an exercise, have to do, directly or indirectly, with the number of degrees conferred per unit time.
This, of course, makes perfect sense if one looks at education mostly as a consumer good, much a car manufacturer looks at how many cars were sold. But is this logic applicable to public education ? Can the number of degrees provide a reliable assessment of crucial aspects, such as the quality of the educational experience, the preparedness of the graduates, the breadth of course offerings, and so on ? It seems like a difficult proposition to accept at face value.

Now, while it is fully understood that a medical patient requires individual attention of doctors and nurses in order to get better, and that replacing that with some Orwellian “certificate of wellness” would be merely a sinister joke; that imposing long work hours on someone who has the responsibility of the many passengers riding the bus would be criminal; in general, that expecting fewer people to do the same (or even more) work can only lead to the deterioration of the performance [1], when it comes to education the temptation of continuing to grant the same number of degrees with fewer instructors, simply by increasing class size, is seemingly difficult to resist. This is a clear expression of the above-mentioned conflict between the two different aspects of education.

While the impact of fewer nurses at a hospital is obvious, impossible to conceal, it is much more difficult to assess the effect on student experience of bringing the size of a large introductory physics course for life science majors, say, from 200 to 400 (any reference to real events is …). After all, all those students will attend the same lectures, purchase the same textbook, work on the same online homework assignments and tests, receive a grade, just as in a smaller class… in fact why stop at 400 ? Why not go to 800, or a thousand ? It’s just matter of building a sufficiently large lecture hall, with powerful speakers and a large screens.
Sure, if students complained, if they sent letters to department chairs, deans, provosts, lamenting the limited individual time with the instructors, the impersonal environment, the inconvenient and rigid setting that such a large class requires (e.g., the impossibility of using white boards), that may provide a disincentive to running classes of large size — but for the most part they do not. They approach such large classes pretty much like they would approach public inoculation — stand in line for a hours, get your shot, suffer a bit, never think of it again.

Of course, there is, alas, a world out there, one that has a weird way of thinking that large Student to Faculty Ratio is indicative of poor education and low academic standards, and therefore reducing the number of instructors while keeping the size of the entering class unchanged (or even increasing it) has a negative effect on the quality of the education. As a result, the standing of the institution, as assessed by its place in the most reputable rankings, may go down, and with it (make no mistake) the value and recognition of the degree. But, is that such a serious problem ? Again, if students and taxpayers do not complain, if all it takes is for some high rank administrator to state in public that the administration remains committed to preserving the international reputation blah blah blah, all while taking all the actions that undermine such reputation in the first place, the outcome seems easy to predict.

Could this be what the President of University of Alberta was thinking, or even implying, when downplaying (scoffing ?) in an interview published on the Edmonton Journal the effect of announced budget cuts ?

Notes

[0] It may sound pompous, but paraphrasing the U.S. Constitution, “I hold this truth to be self-evident”. I am not going to expound on it, because if it needs to be explained, if it is not self-evident, then I doubt if I can write anything particularly convincing to that effect.

[1] It is important to note that things would be no different in the private sector. Let us stick with the analogy with a car maker. Sales are, of course, only part of the equation; for, if sales are up but so are production costs, then the profit margin may not be satisfactory. The CEO of the company, may consider taking action like trimming down the workforce, in order to reduce costs; more often than not, however, production would have to be decreased, and some models discontinued, as seldom is it possible to keep the production at its current level, ensuring the same competitive quality, with fewer workers. Thus, even in the private sector, budget cuts are usually accompanied by fewer customers enjoying a less plentiful product.

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2 Responses to “Education disadvantage”

  1. qaz Says:

    Actually, your premise is wrong. As has been happening in the US for the past couple of decades, lots of public services are in fact doing exactly what you say they won’t do. (Laying off bus drivers and demanding the remaining ones do longer work for the same salary. Usually, its not as obvious as driving longer hours, but often taking other chores [such as cleaning busses, maintenance, etc.]) Certainly, health care in the US has been done exactly this way, with uninsured people ending up in emergency rooms where it is illegal to turn them away, even if it means that the cost of their treatment is absorbed by the hospital.

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, my premise might be wrong but…

      lots of public services are in fact doing exactly what you say they won’t do. (Laying off bus drivers and demanding the remaining ones do longer work for the same salary…)

      But that is not “exactly” what I wrote. I said nothing about salary, or more generally people being asked to pick up other chores previously taken care of by colleagues who were let go. That may well be happening as well, but it is a separate issue. I said “maintaining the existing services”, i.e., the same bus routes, the same number of hospital beds, etc. That is not at all what has been happening, as services have been cut.

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