Feasible utopia for 20 year olds, Part II

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2010

My previous post on the options society should offer 20-year olds got a big and useful response. But unsurprisingly, given the CT roster and readership, it was very university-centric, and, within that, focused on issues around elite institutions. A sentence and footnote about Oxford and Cambridge got as much attention as the rest of the post put together. And the same is true, more subtly, of other points that were raised in repsonse. So, I want to point to some neglected aspects of the post, and ask commenters to focus primarily on the issues as they affect the majority young people who will not go to top-ranked universities, even in a system with greatly expanded access.

First up, I’d like to repeat a couple of paras from the previous post, to which the only responses I saw were reactions to the fact that some of the arguments I made were politically sensitive in the context of the current UK debate about university tuition fees. I wasn’t talking about that, but about a future situation of greatly expanded, but not universal, access. I don’t want to revisit the debates from last time (happy to continue in that thread if people want), but to ask readers and commenters to focus on the proposal itself, in terms of practicality, equity, long-term political appeal, fit with a broader social democratic program and so on. Restating:

If we have a universal or near-universal system, it’s natural to start on the basis of funding through the tax system. Things aren’t quite so easy in the more realistic case where a majority get post-school education, but a minority do not. Here, there are various options for avoiding the inequitable outcome where the minority (probably poorer on average) pay for benefits they don’t receive. One is the set of ideas that have been canvassed in the current debate, including graduate taxes, income-contingent loans and so on.

The alternative is some version of the proposal put forward by Anne Alstott and Bruce Ackerman in the US a while back of making a universal grant, available to everyone at age 20. I’m inclined to a somewhat more paternalistic view than their suggestion of a no-strings grant (partly from considerations of political realism, to which utopians should pay attention, I think). I’d prefer to limit the use of the grant to a range of purposes that are likely to yield life benefits (education, buying a house, starting a small business) and, until it was used, invest it and give the beneficiaries the proceeds every year.

The other point I want to respond to is the suggestion, made by quite a few commenters that “the real problem is at high school or earlier”. My immediate response was to agree in large part, but on rethinking I want to push back a bit.

The big problem with this response is that, while it’s possible to point to various inequities that might be fixed in various countries, there aren’t many obvious general options to achieve better, and less unequal, outcomes from high school, or for that matter from the school system as a whole. As regards improving outcomes, the last two decades have seen the implementation of a market-liberal reform program adopted in the US (and to some extent elsewhere) and based on such proposals as charter schools, for-profit schools, sharp incentives based on text-score, breaking the power of teacher unions and so on. That’s been a near-total failure, but there hasn’t been much put forward in the way of a left/social democratic alternative as far as I can see (I’d be very glad to be corrected on this). And if improving outcomes is hard, doing so in a way that yields more equal outcomes is even harder.

The more fundamental problem is that, compared to both higher education and the socio-economic structure as a whole, the school education system is already highly egalitarian in principle. Within any given system, it is pretty generally accepted that access should be universal and free and that the only legitimate basis for differential provision is based on need. This contrasts dramatically with the principles that apply to post-school education. Even (particularly?) where post-school education is free of charge, it is typically rationed in ways that are totally at variance with egalitarian principles.

While egalitarian principles don’t always translate perfectly into reality (particularly where funding is locally based as in the US, or where there is substantial public aid to private schools as in Australia), unequal outcomes from schooling are not, in the main, due to unequal funding. Rather, they reflect the advantages or disadvantages students bring from home as a result of the inequalities in society as a whole. These in turn are due, at least in part, to the way in which stratification and unequal funding of post-school education reinforce existing inequalities in opportunity and (by stratifying the future workforce) promote greater inequality in outcomes.

So, to my mind, it doesn’t really make sense to say we should leave post-school, education alone until we’ve resolved the problems at the high school level and below. Post-school education is part of the problem. Again, I’ll request commenters to focus on the issues as they affect the majority of the population, rather than the minority who attend the kind of university where CTers mostly work.

{ 46 comments }

1

Myles SG 12.17.10 at 6:49 am

These in turn are due, at least in part, to the way in which stratification and unequal funding of post-school education reinforce existing inequalities in opportunity and (by stratifying the future workforce) promote greater inequality in outcomes.

So, to my mind, it doesn’t really make sense to say we should leave post-school, education alone until we’ve resolved the problems at the high school level and below. Post-school education is part of the problem.

I would love to address that comment at greater length, but in the meanwhile I think it suffices to say that the sentiment expressed in the above, quoted sentences will, if fully really realized, almost certainly lead to lower absolute quality of the very best practitioners of tertiary education in return for a vague, undefined degree of higher egalitarianism.

In any case, what Prof Quiggin doesn’t realize is that the reason the debate in the last thread was so heavily focused away from the specific viability of his plan to a more general discussion of the elite institutions is, as I have noted above, that there exists the fundamental moral and ethical question of trading top-tier quality against quantitative and comparative equality, which necessarily, being a moral question, exists on a higher plane than the specific practicalities of a plan for educational social democracy. Prof Quiggin’s plan trades off quality for quantity (if I were to egregiously and unfairly simplify), and before we can determine the details the moral and ethical dimension has to be addressed first.

2

Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 7:17 am

_The more fundamental problem is that, compared to both higher education and the socio-economic structure as a whole, the school education system is already highly egalitarian in principle._

Just to get the business of pointing out the obvious out of the way, John, this isn’t true for the UK where there’s a large degree of opt-out from the state system by the better-off.

3

dsquared 12.17.10 at 7:17 am

As regards improving outcomes, the last two decades have seen the implementation of a market-liberal reform program adopted in the US (and to some extent elsewhere) and based on such proposals as charter schools, for-profit schools, sharp incentives based on text-score, breaking the power of teacher unions and so on. That’s been a near-total failure, but there hasn’t been much put forward in the way of a left/social democratic alternative as far as I can see

I can do you one but … you’re not gonna like it.

The alternative would be something like the stereotype view of the French education system where, as Alex Harrowell occasionally reminds me, it is regarded as a bizarre piece of neoliberal marketisation that British schools are allowed to choose which teachers to hire, rather than having them allocated from the education ministry. If we had a) a highly centralised system with b) Taylorised and standardised systems of phonics, direct-learning and other results-oriented methods, in the context of c) an egalitarian allocation of resources, then we would probably get something much more like the French outcome, which is better results and more equal distribution of results.

This would, though, be at the cost of making most actually existing teachers’ lives a misery and creating fairly unbearable boredom for the bright kids who grow up to read social science blogs. So I’m not anticipating many takers.

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Gaspard 12.17.10 at 7:19 am

unequal outcomes from schooling are not, in the main, due to unequal funding

This is surely not the case, but even if greater education did not attract more money (i.e. if all jobs paid the same), it would provide greater ability to work the system, get access to the cushier, more knowledge based jobs, and this would snowball through the generations. Look at the way the media and publishing in the UK is dominated by the public schools.

The universal grant idea suffers from the same problem – I think the ConDems in the UK are getting interested in this because they know it will enable them to wash their hands of social inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity.

5

Myles SG 12.17.10 at 9:13 am

This would, though, be at the cost of making most actually existing teachers’ lives a misery and creating fairly unbearable boredom for the bright kids who grow up to read social science blogs. So I’m not anticipating many takers.

Just to get the business of pointing out the obvious out of the way, John, this isn’t true for the UK where there’s a large degree of opt-out from the state system by the better-off.

Pressure valve for the French system: the better Catholic schools, one of which is (and was) attended by the Sarkozy kids, as one of their former classmates has personally attested to me.

My question to Chris is, by the way, besides removing the inequitable tax advantages (charity status) enjoyed by English public schools, what do you propose about the opting-out? It’s entirely doubtful how much further the university system can be pushed to admit state-school pupils. There’s pretty much nothing you can do, other than removing tax breaks, which a) achieves the egalitarian goal of reducing opting-out and b) doesn’t require a huge and unacceptable intrusion of government into individual freedom. And the English middle classes are desperate enough that removing charity status probably won’t do much at all.

By the way, it’s not exactly like the average beur has much of a good chance of going to Lycee Louis-le-Grand, either.

The universal grant idea suffers from the same problem – I think the ConDems in the UK are getting interested in this because they know it will enable them to wash their hands of social inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity.

If you are proposing that the Government fund pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds more generously, on a sliding scale (say schools with more indigent children get double or triple the amount of wealthier schools, etc.), I don’t think there’s anybody in the Western world who will disagree with you. However, even that has fairly limited impact, and were you to try to actively reduce the educational quality available to people from more privileged backgrounds (which is the only frankly effective way of going about it, because of the snowball effect you mentioned) it becomes rapidly unacceptable to the electorate of any liberal democracy.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 9:22 am

_My question to Chris is, by the way, …. _

Well there are a few things you could do. But one would be to force universities to hold admissions lotteries with a lowish entry requirement to the lottery. This would remove a lot of the edge that private schools have over state schools when it comes to getting kids into good universities. With the edge removed, sufficient numbers of parents would, at the margin, be unwilling to pay school fees and more of the middle classes would move back into the state sector, with positive effects on standards there. (Thus starting a virtuous circle).

7

Tim Worstall 12.17.10 at 10:09 am

“As regards improving outcomes, the last two decades have seen the implementation of a market-liberal reform program adopted in the US (and to some extent elsewhere) and based on such proposals as charter schools, for-profit schools, sharp incentives based on text-score, breaking the power of teacher unions and so on. That’s been a near-total failure,”

It has indeed been a failure: but that’s rather more because it’s only actually been tried at the very margins rather than because it’s been implemented and then failed.

“but there hasn’t been much put forward in the way of a left/social democratic alternative as far as I can see”

Hmm….The Finnish system is usually regarded as “the best” secondary education system in the industrialised world. Wholly State run, no markets, highly egalitarian in many ways.

But it divides pupils at 15 into academic and vocational streams. Perhaps the old English system of grammar schools and secondary moderns with the split at 11 wasn’t right: but perhaps the idea of such a split at some age (the very idea of which would be anathema to the current English educational establishment) is a good idea?

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 10:33 am

Well I can quite see that a system that deprives better-off parents of a sure-fire means of securing advantage for their children will be perceived by them as “unfair” and will offend their “human instinct” of a sense of entitlement. (As for all these “worthless” and “quasi-worthless” systems, well, the French and the Germans seem to be prospering compared to the British at the moment.)

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John Quiggin 12.17.10 at 10:47 am

Chris, I can see the merit of a lottery system as a transitional step, since it will inevitably produce reasonably influential losers who will favor the creation of more places. But in the long run it must be better to create places for all qualified students, whether by spreading the existing resources more thinly or (relying on the pull of universalism for support) putting in more money.

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Chris Bertram 12.17.10 at 11:05 am

John @11 – I was about to agree with you, but since the aim is to make it more difficult for the wealthy to buy advantage, then we’d also have to ensure either (a) that all the HE institutions were of a similar standard or (b) continue to make the better institutions select by lottery so that they don’t become socially exclusive.

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dsquared 12.17.10 at 11:23 am

Yes Chris at #12 is surely right on this – you can create more “good” places, but you can’t create more “best” places

12

aaron_m 12.17.10 at 11:33 am

On the grant proposal,

I think that one of the main underlying principles leading to the grant proposal (at least I seem to recall that this is what Ackerman was up to) is pretty difficult to argue against. The idea is that it is hard to justify inheritance on any individualistic theory of social justice. Even libertarians I think should see the issue given how badly Nozick’s theory goes off the rails on this point. If we add to the mix that in practice the more privileged are not only getting more direct inheritance but more indirect inheritance via state subsidized higher education, then we can see that the grant proposal is a way to try and balance this out to some degree.

I think it remains an open question whether or not the second problem is or would necessarily be as problematic as John suggests. Still, if we accept the problem the proposal is meant to address the question is if it ranks high in terms of feasibility. I would say for buying a house no, for starting a business yes but in a limited way.

Why?

1. The proposal is obviously a challenge to established systems of inheritance. It is quite clearly going to run up against major resistance, mostly strongly when the grant is in an opened ended ‘do what you want with it’ form and still strongly when there is an option, however limited, to buy stuff with the money (isn’t that what will have with the ‘proceeds every year’ part of the proposal).

2. Although there are many 20 year olds that can make good use of 20 000 to start a business or buy a house the reality is that far fewer than half of 20 year olds should be buying houses or starting businesses and nowhere near all.

I think more feasible alternatives , given the strong political support from equal access to education and supporting entrepreneurship, are policies that essentially provide a universal grant available to all for HE or starting a business via, in the first case, appropriately publicly finance HE and in the second case a ‘business model merit’ based system to apply for start-up funding for your own business (Sweden also has something like this, although it mostly helps post-secondary educated young people who come out and have a hard time getting their careers started due to certain features of the labour markets they are aiming for).

However, unlike the education grant I think support for publicly financing the business grant will depend on much more demanding rates of ‘success’ As such, access to this grant for 20 year olds will have to be much more limited and I do not think it would go very far in addressing unfairness to the group John identifies. I can only defend the more limited proposal on ‘best we can hope for’ grounds not as a ‘better solution to the problem.’ I would like to be wrong.

I do not see any more political feasible alternative than reforming the tax structure to redress the unfairness John describes. I realize that this proposal is going against the trend, and the grant idea is an attempt to go with it but add left libertarian ideas. Nevertheless I think the proposal breaks through a threshold of acceptability on the current trend and gives us reason to look backwards instead.

13

John Quiggin 12.17.10 at 11:39 am

As I said before, I want to avoid too much focus on the “best” places.

The idea I’m pushing is that, while different people need different kinds of education, they should all, as far as possible, get an equally good education. Of course, that’s an aspiration rather than a reality that’s going to be realised any time soon, and I don’t have a problem with lotteries as a rationing device in the interim.

In this context, if a given institution consistently has an excess demand, it should either
(a) be expanded, if the excess demand reflects doing better with the same resources; or
(b) lose resources, if the excess demand reflects better funding.

14

Steve LaBonne 12.17.10 at 11:47 am

Perhaps the old English system of grammar schools and secondary moderns with the split at 11 wasn’t right: but perhaps the idea of such a split at some age (the very idea of which would be anathema to the current English educational establishment) is a good idea?

I’m willing to think about that, though the devil is in the details. In the US the older, rather unsystematic existence of “academic” and “vocational” tracks, for all its deep flaws and inequities, arguably served the students placed in the latter track better than giving them a watered-down parody of the college-prep curriculum, which prepares them for nothing at all.

15

Myles SG 12.17.10 at 12:00 pm

In this context, if a given institution consistently has an excess demand, it should either
(a) be expanded, if the excess demand reflects doing better with the same resources; or
(b) lose resources, if the excess demand reflects better funding.

There is a successful model of your imperative being put in action: the U.C. system, which expanded at least tenfold. Of course, the objective result is that nearly nobody in California wants it to get any bigger, whatever the population figures. All this without even decreasing the quality of U.C.’s very much. If they did actually decrease the quality of the U.C.’s, the governor responsible would be recalled from office within the week.

I really do want to suggest that it seems to me to be the case that more than politics is the reason. Feasible utopianism can discount politics, but it can’t discount human nature. And it seems to me here that human nature, not politics, militates against the sort of adjustment you are proposing, at least when it comes to successful and widely admired institutions. To give the most obvious example, there is an instinctive, aesthetic revulsion against turning that which is beautiful into that which is ugly. And democratizing successful and widely admired and well-regarded institutions of learning fits pretty neatly into that category. Which is to say, it isn’t feasible utopianism really.

16

sanbikinoraion 12.17.10 at 12:04 pm

One question is whether Oxbridge attendance or an Oxbridge offer is actually the discriminant for better lifetime earnings. If it’s the latter, I suggest that Oxbridge holds a lottery for 80% of its places (the remaining 20% could be auctioned…) meaning that the middle classes could either pay up or face the possibility of Little Jimmy suffering the indignity of having to go to a different Russell Group uni. With Oxbridge attendance not guaranteed, perhaps the middle classes will be more interested in the quality of 2nd tier educational establishments.

17

StevenAttewell 12.17.10 at 2:16 pm

Well, as I stated before, I think a more universal path includes a broadening of universal higher education to encompass the skilled trade as a worthy option (we basically have such a track in the vocational/technical/business colleges, but they’re widely considered low quality and are insufficiently regulated), establishing “cradle to launch” social protection, and working on the K-12 track as well.

And Myles, you’re leaning awfully hard on a rather evidenceless appeal to eternal human nature which raises the argument – those French, German, and Finnish folks, are they not human?

18

John Quiggin 12.17.10 at 8:14 pm

Can we please stop talking about university students. I’ve deleted a bunch of comments that most gratuitously disregarded my request not to rehash the issues raised in the previous thread, which is still open for those who want to pursue these issues.

Myles SG, I request that you don’t comment further in this thread. You’re swamping it.
Engels, I will reply (again) in the other thread

19

engels 12.17.10 at 8:39 pm

Really, don’t bother.

20

engels 12.17.10 at 8:50 pm

(Please note the point is perfectly general and has nothing to do with universities. If you don’t want to rehash the same issues, why re-post the same neo-liberal factoids?0

21

mpowell 12.17.10 at 9:10 pm

I don’t understand how you’re going to discuss the egalitarianism of the HE system without talking about universities. I don’t think it matters how equitably you fund your system. If the top 10% of students are going to one set of schools and the bottom 90% going to another, nobody will take the degrees earned from that second set of schools as seriously. I think that’s why people tend to gravitate towards talking about universities.

22

leederick 12.17.10 at 10:00 pm

I know you’re academics, and you love talking about universities and degrees – but I really don’t think even good degrees count for that much in terms of employability. From a UK perspective, I think the major problem in post-school education is in professional qualifications. It really is a professional qualification in law/accounting/marketing/HR/surveying/etc which is a ticket to the middle class.

This is even explicit in some university marketing materials where degrees are sold one the basis that they will help you get into the sort of employment position which will sponsor you to do a professional qualification. It really is the CIMA, FRICS & CIMs that count rather than the BA (Hons) or LLBs. The main problem is changes in employment patterns mean non-degree routes to these qualifications are becoming increasingly more difficult to take. It’s also that the state has largely abandoned this terrain to various professional institutes – so while there’s a lot of fretting about degrees this isn’t on the political radar.

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John Quiggin 12.18.10 at 12:30 am

@21 I’m happy to talk about (elite) universities and university students, but we already ran up 100+ comments in the previous thread – now I think it’s time to get on to the other 90 per cent.

@engels: your heresy detector is oversensitive

24

BlaiseP 12.18.10 at 12:57 am

How serious are you to be gladly corrected? There are options to achieve better and more equal outcomes from K-12. The majority of K-12 dollars come from property taxes. My wife’s a tenured teacher in Carpentersville, in a run-down, poorly-performing school in community unable to fund its schools effectively. I purchased the computers in her classroom from my own pocket.

There is no push back: your own argument is more correct than you understand: the advantages or disadvantages students bring from home as a result of the inequalities in society as a whole provably lead to unequal funding and therefore unequal outcomes from schooling.

To pretend there is any mystery is risible: cast a shadow in the public schools of any poor community. While money does not cure all ills, the inescapable conclusion is that well-heeled communities fund their schools and poor ones do not. It becomes a vicious cycle: because a decrease in school quality pushes down real estate prices and therefore property taxes, the school district spirals into funding crises. The music and arts programs are long gone. Sports and trips to the museums are fond memories.

I have previously said an egalitarian education is the product of an egalitarian society. The USA is manifestly not an egalitarian society. My wife has been assaulted six times, twice last school year. She’s burning out.

But if we must confine our arguments to what may be done to remedy things after high school, you will be pleased to learn my wife is going back for another master’s degree in community college administration.

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engels 12.18.10 at 12:59 am

I don’t think it’s a heresy, I just think it’s wrong, and the fact that you are willing to repeat it while refusing to defend it against reasonable criticism, relying instead on lame jokes and deleting dissenting opinions, doesn’t really inspire confidence.

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John Quiggin 12.18.10 at 1:15 am

Engels, as promised I’ve replied in the other thread

Blaise, I mentioned the local basis of US school funding, based on local real estate taxes, as an example of something that could be fixed. But that is a problem that is, in this extreme form at least, specific to the US.

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andthenyoufall 12.18.10 at 1:38 am

Why should we think that an egalitarian school system is the terminus ad quem for left-wing educational thinking? Because they have to pay teachers who are able and willing to maintain some semblance of order in a classroom filled with low-income children, schools that serve poor neighborhoods already need more money to offer the same services. To overcome the handicaps that those children suffer from, in addition to simply offering the same instruction that suburban schools offer, they need even more resources.

I’m slightly skeptical about plans for educational equality that involve forcing smarter, better-behaved kids to sit in the same classrooms as students who are having more difficulty. Are there any good examples of implementations of this plan that have worked? In every specific example I have heard of, the academic attainment of the best students collapses while that of the worst students stays the same, upper-middle class parents withdraw their children, and Things Fall Apart. So discussions of these experiments start to revolve around how we can coerce parents into sending their children to these schools… that is, about what would make the experiment possible, rather than what would make the experiment successful. That strikes me as wishful utopianism rather than realistic utopianism.

One route which we should swear off, though, is moving children about school systems like human chess pieces. Time is a huge constraint in human life, for rich and poor alike, and school systems which try to address educational injustice by making children attend schools very far from where they live only undermine support for the principle of universal public education. If a student spends four hours a day on buses, there isn’t going to be a ton of time for homework. (I should clarify. I’m not against treating children like chess pieces in general, only when it leads to long commutes. If someone wants to argue for compulsory boarding schools for everyone under 18, that’s fine by me.)

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spyder 12.18.10 at 3:01 am

I do not believe you can have any authentic reform in education without first addressing changing the fundamental philosophy for/of the education of teachers. As a retired teacher both, in the k-12 system running a middle school program for a district in CA, and at the university educating teachers, i chose to adhere to my personal views in favor of Maslow, Freire, et al, with a dedicated focus on lifelong-learning skill development and longterm student/teacher relations. Personal philosophical commitment was important to me, and fortunately for the years of wonderful students. For me, the impetus in the future needs to be on encouraging teachers to focus on nurturing skill sets that create a viable interest in each student to want to learn something, anything. We need to realize that as our societies are composed of people who have significantly different desires, motivations, and interests; so too our schools must have teachers who share in each student’s development as an individual life and mind. Cross-sectional curricula pablum is killing us.

We do have great teachers, but we do them great harm by not underpinning what is structurally important to their efforts, to philosophical and practical goals for long-term student successes. Indeed, i chose to send my own children to Waldorf schools until the 8th grade, because i highly valued the tremendous lifelong benefits engendered there. It was, at times, nearly catastrophically expensive to do so, but the rewards continue to be reaped as they begin to teach their own children. Is it fair that i could do that? No, but it was critically important to do so.

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Digestive Tract on Legs 12.18.10 at 4:41 am

I started to write a comment in the first thread and then decided that it wasn’t worth the time. Consider this the triumph of hope over, etc.

There seems to be an assumption underlying the whole conversation here that a single “lump of education” absorbed early in adulthood is all that is required. For the majority, those who work in technical or “vocational” jobs, this is no longer true — or so Charles Handy and various other futurists tell us. We have all heard “the average teeenager can expect to change careers seven times in her working life”. (That’s careers: different industries, not just different jobs.) Seven careers mean six or seven lumps of education. Let us assume that the futurists know what they are talking about. Certainly the average lifetime of occupations is decreasing.

If this is the situation, then the only feasible way forward is the automation of the great majority of tertiary education. I cannot see another way to provide several times the current quantity of education at no more than twice the current cost. Now, automation most emphatiically does not mean distance education via the internet. Distance education is a poor substitute for intramural, and distance education via the internet has to date been less effective than the traditional kind. The key determinant of instruction quality is class size. In the ideal, the class size is one, and that is the promise that automation holds: to every student her own instructor, always focused, endlessly patient. We are a few years away from making this reality, but the remaining development seems to be a matter of engineering rather than science – there are no “breakthroughs” required, just product development. The motivation is there also: there are about three billion people for whom tertiary education is presently too expensive.

Those in the teaching trade will no doubt flat-out refuse to believe that automation of vocational training is possible. Well, just take the idea in, and start to look around. Furthermore, try to stop thinking of it as a threat, and more as an opportunity to focus on where you can really provide value, for example in research and the training of researchers.

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Tim 12.18.10 at 9:00 am

I am enrolled in a not-very-selective (but easy to love) state university, and also take classes at the even easier to love 2-year City College of San Francisco, not sure what the equivalents are in other English-speaking countries. Also attended a very selective school and received a degree in a subject I am often embarrassed to mention, despite the prestige of the place. After working for a few years I am studying an engineering discipline related to what I’ve been working in. I don’t really think good (if not truly elite) schools and anti-selective ones (ie, actively supporting under-prepared students) are unbridgeable separate worlds. That is to say, I think a lot of 20-year-olds should be able to go to college. My feasible utopia, at the academic level of, say, The University of Oregon or NYU, but probably not Stanford or MIT, would have the level of fussiness of a good city college (ie, CCNY), and would:

1) Make some version of minors and majors into stand-alone degrees, in addition to the BA. Ie a minor is 7-10 classes with whatever prerequisites, a major is 12-20, a BA is the major plus existing “breadth” requirements.
2) Award course credit wherever possible on the basis of exams, and make the exams available on a non-discriminatory basis to non-matriculated students. Treat research papers as a kind of exam in this category. Have a looser definition of matriculated, regard students as anyone who has passed a certain category of class in the last 6 months.
3) For labs, design classes, seminars, etc. where written exams are not practical, do your best to make them accessible to as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible.
4) Limit fees to near the marginal cost of a student’s demands on an institution, whether that is a seat in a lecture hall or just the grading of tests or problem sets. Assume that excellent lecture material, whether Denis Auroux or Siva Kumar, will in many cases already, and forever increasingly, be available free online.

Also: Stop funding research, pensions, symposia, campus amenities, and sabbaticals with money whose source is student or public debt. (only fair)

I actually think this can all be done for such little money that it will barely matter who is paying for it, something like the cost of a GRE subject test per class, $200-800 per lecture or lab section (say 15 meetings over a semester, 25-500 heads). You could back-load the costlier sections such that only 70% of coursework is done before you face the prospect of real debt. None of this has to be drastic, just take existing state schools, add course credit options, add degree options, etc., until more people are being served. If traditional enrollment declines over a period of years, reduce your staff and overhead dramatically and declare victory.

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maidhc 12.18.10 at 9:06 am

Long busrides to school were the incubator for Nicaraguan Sign Language (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language), so they’re not always a bad thing.

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andthenyoufall 12.18.10 at 10:24 am

Tim: I like the idea of colleges increasingly replacing course credits with examination credits. (Not in the sense that it’s a good thing if fewer students are in seminars and lectures, but in the sense that if you can learn the material but can’t afford the seminars and lectures, you shouldn’t be excluded.) And I would push it even further: if accredited colleges started awarding degrees on the basis of exams, then you could cut out the colleges entirely and start awarding a new sort of degree on the basis of standardized national exams like the APs.

But even though this idea is a step in the right direction, it seems premised on the belief that we’re swimming in talented writers and readers and mathematicians and scientists who simply haven’t gotten around to earning the credential appropriate to their knowledge. But the knowledge is a bigger problem than the credential, no? “Course material is available for free online” suggests a glorious future where twenty-somethings fish in the afternoon and learn partial differential equations on Wikipedia after dinner…. but that seems off. Most learning is very closely connected to practicing what you’ve learned, and it’s very difficult for most people to stick to a regimen of practice without some sort of Virgil figure to lead them through the difficulties they encounter on the way.

Maidhe: You joke, I hope?

33

Brett Bellmore 12.18.10 at 11:47 am

It seems to me that you’re all determined to ignore the elephant under the bed, and concentrate on the color of the sheets. Higher education can NEVER be universal, so long as it follows the present model of human teachers directly teaching small numbers of students who devote themselves full time to learning. We can’t afford to lose that much of the work force to spending time in school, and we can’t afford that large a percentage of the work force being devoted to running schools.

In order for higher education to be universal, it will have to be automated to a great extent. Computer learning. Human teachers will have to be reserved for students who the computers identify as having particular problems, just to get them over the hump.

This applies to K-12, too. For all the complaints about teachers being underpaid, how can it be otherwise when the educational model remains stuck at the craft level?

34

Tim 12.18.10 at 12:23 pm

andthenyoufall: Actually I agree with most of what you say, which is another reason the future I look forward to should not be threatening to too many people. Look at the course material made available by the NPTELHRD (India’s IIT system) — there are a half dozen degrees worth of lectures in patient, precise and elegant English, and the average video is watched about 1000 times per month. (Compare Econ 1 at Berkeley, watched half as much by a single class.)

But I still think the set of people who are capable of doing differential equations and have the desire to understand them mostly aren’t. (I remember when I was such a person.) I might not have gotten through multivariable calculus either, except for the material made available by Berkeley and MIT (Hutchings and Auroux, both phenomenal.) It’s not that I have some great talent that would have expressed itself in the absence of these resources, or that I would be poised to pass the professional exams without spending a few years learning the material. I am also sure that I wouldn’t have been able to sustain the motivation necessary to do the work if I wasn’t able to get course credit along the way and have a clear path to the relevant professional credential — something I have been able to do thanks to having a good local public university with an open enrollment program available to me. But it is much harder and costlier than it needs to be, the difficulty is not only academic. I have some savings and a flexible job and wife — without which I’d be stalled, as I was for a couple of years, and as a lot of people are.

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Cranky Observer 12.18.10 at 2:42 pm

> We can’t afford to lose that much of the work force to spending time
> in school, and we can’t afford that large a percentage of the work force
> being devoted to running schools.

We aren’t quite at Poul Anderson’s posited “machines do all the work” society, but clearly one of the major problems that the Western world has faced since at least 1970 is that our workforce if far too large for the productive work that needs doing. That’s one of the reasons that European societies have chosen to provide such generous, long-running postsecondary education benefits: to keep those people out of the workforce (and with luck educating them a bit). In the US we have preferred to use a combination of Dickensian poverty and meager social benefits to keep the excess noses to the grindstone, since that is deemed a desirable state of human existence by many in our ruling class, but it hasn’t changed or solved the fundamental problem.

Cranky

36

Brett Bellmore 12.18.10 at 2:50 pm

We have the illusion of that state of affairs, sustained by borrowing. Not the reality of it.

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andthenyoufall 12.18.10 at 7:08 pm

@34-36: If you were to vastly increase someone’s hourly wage, he could enjoy that raise purely in terms of income (working the same number of hours, buying more stuff), purely in terms of leisure (earning the same amount of money, working much less), or, more probably, in some mix of the two.

If a human society becomes more efficient at producing goods and services, the members of that society can (collectively) face the same choice, and will probably both consume more and work less. And in fact, American workers have become more productive in recent decades. So we don’t need the strong thesis that there “isn’t enough work” to justify Cranky’s conclusion; productivity data is enough. (If education isn’t purely leisure, but also causes further increases in productivity, then that conclusion holds even more strongly.)

38

e 12.18.10 at 11:12 pm

I have been thinking about this thread all morning, while my neighbour, a carpenter installs a new door in our unit. My conclusion is that education is not so important to equality. Simply tie income less to skill and more to time, by raising the minimum wage and weighting taxes toward the top, and the pressure that education currently bears, to sort students for future quality of life in addition to imparting skills, will decrease. University will then look less like a machine for redistributing life chances, which is how Mr Quiggin and the rest of you are treating it, and more like a guild for scholars.

39

stubydoo 12.19.10 at 12:47 am

As I’ve said several times now, talk about universities belongs in the other thread. But if you do choose to comment there, please tone down the snark – JQ

40

John Quiggin 12.19.10 at 1:14 am

@Brett Let’s do the math on this. I’ll start with the most aggregated version. Education spending currently accounts for about 6 per cent of national income, and you can add maybe 3 per cent more for the foregone labor of students over school-leaving age. As an upper bound, let’s say that we want to go from an average 12 years of education to 16 (actually, the current average is >12 and what I’m proposing would require <16). That would mean an extra 2 per cent of national income spent on education provision, and perhaps a doubling of the foregone labor for another 3 per cent. Against that, you would have the extra productivity from a more educated workforce. That looks eminently feasible.

41

stubydoo 12.19.10 at 2:32 am

Ouch,

Prof Q, you confused me with you “now I think it’s time to get on to the other 90 per cent”. You must’ve really meant a number much smaller than 90 to object to the subject matter of my comment (can’t say I’m quite so mystified about your objection to my snark, not that I agree with you).

42

John Quiggin 12.19.10 at 3:43 am

Stubydoo, I took the number from the California Master plan which allocates places in the UC system to the top 10 per cent of the age cohort. The other 90 per cent go to a lower-tier (State Uni or community college) institution or don’t go at all. I think that is pretty representative of developed world outcomes, and probably better than many. (Although I spelt out that the 90 per cent are those who don’t go to elite universities in the main post, I got a bit shorter in the comments – since you and others ignored my carefully worded request in the first place, I assumed that what was needed was emphasis rather than explication).

e, I think, despite my best efforts, that you may be misinterpreting me in the same way as lots of other commenters. Acquiring a skilled trade, such as carpentry, is one kind of post-school education, and an important one.

As regards the rest of your comment, I agree that progressive taxation and a more compressed wage distribution are vital. Increased access to education and therefore to professional and skilled jobs would help to achieve this.

43

stubydoo 12.19.10 at 4:30 am

Prof Q,

Once upon a time I attended a California Community College. My comments were applicable to that level.

A possibly less tendentious version of what I was saying is that part of the problem of what’s going on at the non-elite tiers of education is that they’re infested with a kind of romanticism that would be better kept bottled up at the elite levels from which it has sprung (those elites don’t need to face reality in the same way, so they can have it if they want it).

I’m mostly talking about the US, but a utopian project for higher education elsewhere is liable to lead down the same road.

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Tim Worstall 12.19.10 at 9:52 am

“Against that, you would have the extra productivity from a more educated workforce.”

That’s an assumption and one that needs to be proven, not assumed.

It’s certainly true that education in some subjects for some people leads to higher productivity of those people.

It’s also certainly arguable (to put it at its weakest) that some education for some people does not lead to higher productivity from those people. Whether you want to use anecdata like all those degree holders (yes, I know, universities on the other thread) working as Starbucks baristas or the rapidly falling (and possibly for men with arts degrees in the UK now negative) graduate premium, it isn’t true to say that “more education” leads to higher productivity.

Just as more capital doesn’t necessarily lead to higher labour productivity (the Soviet Union managed to prove that one quite nicely).

Education in what for whom is the important point, not more (or less) education in and of itself.

Which leads to the important question being, not should we have more (or less) education for all, but how should the decision be made as to who gets what form or level of education? And until that question is answered then we simply cannot know whether more education is a good idea or not.

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dave_scrapnail 12.20.10 at 10:03 pm

I see a train of thought that goes through Quiggin’s responses that goes something like this: ‘Education should be universal, rather than dictated by supply and demand, because it is a right that everyone in society should have access to, like healthcare’.

An effective response by Brett Bellmore @33, probably among others, is that higher education being universal might not be an absolute good because it would cause imbalances in the larger social system: fewer people paying into the system, or not enough teachers for the students. But looking at it from a moral perspective the question of whether education should be universal is far from unambiguous.

Take healthcare for example. Most would agree that society should make sure that everyone has access to the treatment they need. But what about very expensive treatments? Or treatments that are only semi-necessary? I tend to be of the opinion that our capitalist system needs revising. But I also think that the difference between BA graduate and high school graduate should not be as stark as it is in our society (maybe that bias comes from having worked on jobs such as sales and tech where a diploma is not entirely necessary). Given the minimal benefit of a liberal and even a technical education to real-world jobs, is there a good reason to study english literature or whatever else right after high school rather than two or four years later?

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piglet 12.22.10 at 6:07 pm

I don’t think it’s a heresy, I just think it’s wrong, and the fact that you are willing to repeat it while refusing to defend it against reasonable criticism, relying instead on lame jokes and deleting dissenting opinions, doesn’t really inspire confidence.

Again I agree with engels (25). I am sorry to say but I don’t think JQ has shown a willingness to debate his objections in good faith.

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