May Day

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2020

It’s the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, transformed, like every other public event, by the coronavirus pandemic

Most obviously, there is no May Day march for the first time in many years (possibly since the first march in the 1890s, I haven’t been able to find out for share).

More significantly, ideas associated with May Day that seemed to belong to a distant past have suddenly become crucially relevant. The most important of these is the injustice, inefficiency and absurdity of a society where those who do the most vital work are underpaid and disregarded, while the biggest rewards go to a class that turns out to be of no use when it really matters.

There is already pressure to ‘snap back’ to what was seen as normal in the recent past as soon as, or even before, the pandemic is controlled. But the message of May Day is that a better society is possible, and that the achievements of the workers movement over the past century can and should be defended and extended.

Among the many changes we need is a push to reduce inequality through both predistribution (changing the way the market rewards work) and redistribution (taxation and transfer payments). In practice that means higher minimum wages, higher wages for those who provide us with the basic wages we all need, and better funding for public services of all kinds. For those at the top of the income distribution, incomes will have to decline, either through predistribution (lower market incomes) or redistribution. In the context of Australian universities, the closure of borders implies a big reduction in revenue from international students. In the short run, the cost of that is mostly being borne by contract employees who aren’t being renewed. But the burden should be shared more fairly, starting at the top (our vast array of vice-chancellors, deans and others)and extending to senior academics (including economics professors). In the longer term, we need a fundamental reform of the system, based on the goal of universal access to post-school education and training, but that’s a topic for another post.



Hidari 05.04.20 at 2:02 pm

Unfortunately, to achieve all of these (eminently desirable) ends, you need a political party which is prepared to argue for them, and which must come to power and be allowed to govern.

As we have seen recently in the UK and (with the failure of the Sanders insurgency) in the US, the odds of this happening in the so-called ‘advanced’ capitalist states, are not great.


reason 05.04.20 at 2:11 pm

“In the longer term, we need a fundamental reform of the system, based on the goal of universal access to CONTINUING post-school education and training, but that’s a topic for another post.”

My suggested change.

But along with medicine, I think tertiary education could do with a digital transformation.

Not only it very expensive, but the residential costs may be the least sustainable part of the total cost. And the least necessary.


notGoodenough 05.04.20 at 5:32 pm

John Quiggin @ OP

As someone who believes education should be accessable and free (or at the very least a nominal cost only), I look forward to your future post with great interest.


notGoodenough 05.04.20 at 5:55 pm

Reason @ 2

With respect, I might have to quibble (slightly).

The cost of university education is very expensive in the UK and US (unreasonably so, in my opinion). However, other countries appear to be a bit more realistic (e.g. Netherlands Public University is 1700 – 1900 euros annually). I think it should be free, of course, but I suspect the relatively high cost in UK/US has little to do with intrinsic cost of education and a lot more to do with being run as for-profit organisations. Of course, I don’t know what your experiences have been – I’d be interested to get your take.

A digital transformation certainly might help with residence fees – though the cost of renting in the UK is generally pretty high anyway. While, being a student does offer some advantages (no rates), typically it would be necessary to share. One advantage of trying to do this in a University city is that there are plenty of other students with which to share. On the other hand, perhaps simply making “on campus” residence nominal fee only (after all, if they’re not inhabited they’re just a huge drain with no resources) might be a better approach? I don’t know (I’m hardly an expert in that!), but it might be worth considering what it would look like if these were run “at cost”.

However, I think my main concern with digitising is the lack of access to facilities which are quite useful to certain courses (e.g. chemistry, physics, veterinary medicine, etc.). As someone who distance-learned (albeit in the days before digital learning!) before going to university for my degree, being denied access to a chemistry lab at the degree level would essentially cripple my studies. One option (which we used to go for in my distance learning course) was to try and do as much at home as possible, then travel to a lab to sit the exam. It was not exactly the best way to learn the practical skills which are foundational (it is better when you learn the theory and application side-by-side), and when continuing my studies at a higher level “on campus” I was notably behind others in that respect.

To summarise my ramblings:

I’m not sure (given the for-profit nature of UK/US universities) that going digital will solve the high cost – it seems to be a product of the approach those countries take to funding rather than something inherent to the university model.

Decreasing residence fees would be good. However, if you are living off-campus and in a shared house (in the UK), I don’t know it would be much cheaper. That does depend a lot on the city, of course (London is notoriously expensive regardless, for example), and extra flexability would help, but I don’t know by how much.

I have grave doubts about trying to study to degree level any subject which requires familiarity with certain developed skills (e.g. chemistry), without having access to relevant facilities*.

I’m not opposed in principle, I’m just not yet convinced of the benefits and practicalities. I am, of course, always open to changing my mind.

*Given that rather bizarre and insulting allegations have been previously leveled at me after I made this point, I would like to clarify to say I am not denigrating any other parts of the studying process – merely saying that there are (to the best of my understanding) subjects where having access to a lab is rather important.


Tm 05.04.20 at 7:38 pm

Hidari, thanks a bunch for the helpful comment. The odds for progressive change were never “great”, you know that? Every little step was only made possible by many people willing to fight for them. And it was rarely just a question of getting the right party elected to government. (Social insurance was after all introduced by Bismarck 140 years ago).


Moz in Oz 05.04.20 at 10:43 pm

Hidari : and it’s notable that even in countries where that has been given more of a chance the result is regarded as a problem. Aotearoa is doing better than the more capitalist countries on a range of measures but to some that just means that they’re not doing as well on the one measure that actually matters.

Paul Fritjers phrased it as “accountability leads you to a single measure of value”, which implies that if you want governments to be accountable for the economy you can’t hold them accountable for social or environmental measures. I think he’s horribly wrong, but if you take that as a statement of belief akin to “there is no god but God” I think it has considerable explanatory power.


J-D 05.05.20 at 1:32 am

The odds for progressive change were never “great”, you know that? Every little step was only made possible by many people willing to fight for them.

‘In life, as in any game whose outcome depends on both luck and skill, the rational response to bad odds is to try harder.’


Hidari 05.05.20 at 7:52 am

@5 ‘The odds for progressive change were never “great”, you know that’.

What a strange thing to say. Obviously they were never great, but they were never static either. The odds vary over time.

When Labour party activists were campaigning for the 1945 election, or when Democrats were trying to get FDR elected in 1933, they knew that they ha a hill to climb, but they never thought that the hill was unclimbable and they were right.

Within living memory a quarter of the world’s population lived under regimes that, whatever the ‘reality’ of the situation, were considered to be (and considered themselves to be) socialist. And most of the rest of the world’s population lived under social democratic regimes far to the left of anything that we have nowadays outside Scandinavia. Even the United States, in the 1950s and 1960s, was ‘post-new-deal’ and the Republican party (as far as economics goes) was probably to the left of the contemporary Democrats.

Even as late as the 1990s, there were putatively centre left governments throughout Europe. What has happened since the early 1990s is the collapse of the Soviet style ‘communist’ regimes and then (inevitably one might say) first the dismantling of social democracy (in the 1970s and 1980s) and then the dismantling of the Blairite ‘centre left’ governments in the early 21st century. And the so-called populists (which, despite what the media will have you believe, are all, invariably, of the political right) have swarmed in to fill the gap previously filled by social democracy and socialism.

Currently, the exception of Cuba, the number of states that describe themselves as communist or socialist is zero (well, maybe with the exception of Nepal and Venezuela, and both of these countries have severe problems) and almost every ‘wave’ of elections brings more catastrophe for the left. I’m sorry if this offends you or makes you sad, but these are the objective facts. The Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies (and on a much lesser scale, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, as well as the ‘Pink Tide’ in South America) were the best chances to reverse this 50 year trend, and they failed, so where now?

I’m not saying that the Left should give up, anything but, but perhaps the Left might reflect a bit on how badly they have fucked up, such that we are where we are, and, based on this autopsy, create a ‘New New Left’ that might succeed where the current left have failed. I have my own ideas here, but that’s for another thread.

In any case, wide eyed ‘wishing on a star’ gets nobody anywhere. The Left, globally, hasn’t been in such a bad situation since the 1840s (perhaps the 1820s), and all rational self-reflection on the Left about what to do next must begin with this fact.


reason 05.05.20 at 5:42 pm

NotGoidEnough, I’m of the view that it would make sense for students to be on campus for some of the time. It could also be arranged that there would be local worksjops nearer to ehere the students live. I see no value in sitting in a lecture hall with 600 szudents as I did in my fresher year. I can be just as involved watching a film.


notGoodenough 05.05.20 at 10:59 pm

reason @ 8

Thank you for your reply – I believe I see your point. As I said, I don’t in principle think digitalisation is inherently bad, but I do have reservations. I suspect both you and I may have similar goals – i.e. make education affordable and accessible, and of a high standard for the students – so I hope you’ll understand that I’m wary of going digital unless it can be shown it will be a net benefit, and that the quality of education won’t decrease (i.e. every institute becomes like some of the more egregious diploma mills).

If I might take the liberty of offering up some concerns (and I don’t pretend to have the answers for this), I would make these following points (not to be argumentative, but merely for your consideration – if you do see solutions, or perhaps don’t think these are as problematic as I do, I would certainly be interested to hear that as a different perspective is always welcome):

Food for thought

In a sort-of-order of decreasing concern:

1) Necessity of labs

For my subject (chemistry) the amount of lab-work and lectures were not exactly 1:1, but certainly sufficiently high that the time you’d need to be on campus would be similar to what is currently the case. Now of course I don’t mean to suggest every course is like that, but certainly I would think most STEM-type subjects would be.

I’ve tried to think of some ways around this, but they all (at least to me) seem to have some significant problems. For example, you could take the approach of learning all the theory separately first, then doing the practical work (but that has a lot of issues, including that the best way to learn for some people is through doing and it makes it a lot harder to integrate the skills and learning experience). You could perhaps make digital labs which people can play with before tackling the real thing, but a big part of lab work is “learning to fail better” which generally requires a physical lab. You could make it a “once-a-week” commute type affair, but at that point you require the students to be within a radius of the university anyway – in which case I think you’d face a similar situation to what currently exists (from a UK perspective).

If you try to bring the labs to the people (rather than the other way around), then I think cost of having a large number of labs all over the country is a bit more than having one in one place (you could decrease that by having multiple universities hire out the same labs, but I’m not sure the scheduling of that would be anything less than a nightmare…). That’s not say it is impossible, but (to give an example) the best way of learning NMR is to use the NMR (which even at the lower end can be more than half a million a pop, plus technician for maintenance and operation costs). You could limit lab-workshops to just the cheap methods (e.g. titration, the cheapest spectroscopy, etc.), but then I feel you are already decreasing the value of the education.

In short, I don’t know that resolving the need for having a building full of expensive equipment can easily be resolved.

2) Lecture-learning experience

You make the point that you don’t see any value in sitting in a lecture room. However, with respect, I’d suggest that different people seem to learn differently (some are visual learners, some do better with a book, etc.). My experience was my best lecturers didn’t just stand up and drone on, but got us involved and integrated with the lessons. They could see how the class was coping with the material, and adjust as needed. They could play abut with examples, and really help us learn the subject and the understanding behind a topic (and how to approach problem solving), rather than just memorising some information.

Now of course that isn’t to say you couldn’t replicate that online, but one important consideration is the infrastructure (how ubiquitous is a good internet connection) and potential tech issues (I don’t think I’ve ever had a “online” conference without having to spend at least 5 minutes sorting out some issue). With a meeting you can just wait or continue with a core group of necessary people – but if you’ve got 300 individual connections, all of which must be present and able to hear and see everything with a high degree of clarity, I don’t know the technology is there yet.

You could make pre-recorded lessons and then have tutorials afterwards – but then we had tutorials as well as the lessons to interact in, and I don’t know if this is the best method (I found I understood material a lot better when it was delivered by some of my lecturers, than when I was trying to learn through material given to me via distance learning).

Of course, there are a lot of problems with the current system of lectures (I think various CT-ers, including the bloghosts, have done a good job of highlighting those), but I wonder if that is a problem with the lecture-model inherently, or if it is more to do with universities shoving people out without sufficient training or support for that role?

Maybe I’ve just been blessed with mostly good lecturers (and a few, if notable bad ones), and perhaps my experience and approach is atypical, but I’m not sure this should be dismissed without some research.

3) Potential value of physical location

I think there are some potential benefits to having a physical location to attend. Perhaps these could be replicated in other ways, but just as some possibilities:

Easier to carry out group work. Large chunks of the 3rd and 4th years of my masters were spent on group projects. By already having spent large chunks of time with my classmates (and having made some very good friends) I already had an easy connection to people I could work with.

Interaction with other people. Not only was it useful to spend time with classmates (for both work and non-work reasons), but also with people studying a wide array of subjects. It was a good way to make friends, and also an easy way to try things out and develop my own personality. I also think having an environment where you can learn a lot about yourself is useful (in some ways I changed quite a bit during that period, and laid the foundations for who I am today).

Extra curricula activities. Since undergraduate I’ve always found it much harder to get involved in things, and much harder to try out new ideas as there isn’t a central pool of people who will also be doing the same. You can do this to an extent in any such environment (including a job), but I think it would take a braver person than me to ask a work colleague if they knew if anyone was into boardgames and RPGs!

Learning how to adult. I found some value in living in an environment where I had a lot of freedom, but there was also support (e.g. I could cook – and had to on weekends – but wasn’t going to starve if I didn’t know how to). It was a good half-way house between leaving home and being completely self-reliant, and made the process a lot less intimidating.

Perhaps none of these points are valuable enough to justify physical universities, or perhaps these are all solvable, but I see some pros as well as cons.

4) The multi-role of universities

This is a bit of an odd point, as it could be both a positive and a negative. But to try and explain myself a bit…

It seems to me that a lot of problems currently facing Universities derive from uncertainty as to their purpose, and the emphasis placed on big names and funding. In the US this also seems to be exacerbated by the need to spend appalling amounts of money on athletic coaches (e.g. University of Minnesota football coach is paid 3.6 million, or about 60 professors-worth).

However, as an undergraduate, I found a lot of value in being in a building which had both all the teaching stuff and the equipment of actual research groups. I was also fortunate in being able to volunteer to intern in the lab focussing on my preferred subject (I got to develop my own research topic, under heavy supervision, and learned a lot that way). It was also my lecturer who suggested I pursue a PhD (it never occurred to me to do so, and without their encouragement I literally would not be where I am today).

Perhaps this could be solved by splitting the research and the teaching aspects, and making a sort-of college type system with links between the two. Or maybe, if the inherently profit-driven approach we currently have were abolished, it would be easier to simply make teaching and research both equally valued within universities (so providing access to both excellent teachers and excellent research groups to the students).

A question

I would like to ask a question, if I may, and as I realise that via text makes tone a difficult thing to interpret, please let me say I don’t intend this to be rude, insulting, aggressive, or anything like that – I’m genuinely interested in understanding your reasoning.

Why do you favour digitalisation as a way of decreasing the student’s cost?

Is it a practicality issue (e.g. you don’t think the process of commercialisation can be reversed), you just don’t see any point to physical universities, some other reason, or a blend of several reasons?

Please don’t feel obliged to answer, but if you’d be willing to do so (and the OP doesn’t mind) I’d be interested to get a bit better idea of how you got to your position.

Final remark

I am an inherently cautious person, so perhaps my concerns are overblown, but I found some benefits to attending a physical university which I didn’t get from distance learning. Perhaps I am blinkered by nostalgia, or perhaps I am missing the obvious, so if you (or anyone else, for that matter) want to weigh in on my concerns I’m more than happy to get any relevant responses.

I don’t think that we need to digitise to make universities practical for everyone – it wasn’t so very long ago they were free to attend in the UK (and, if I recall correctly, you were actually paid to attend in the Netherlands). However, that isn’t to say digitisation may not bring multiple benefits.

It is of course worth noting I’ve not been in academia for a while now (certainly my perspective could be quite a bit out of date, is from that of a STEM student, and is UK centric). However, as I think helping future generations learn is not only an ethical requirement, but perhaps the only way we as a species will survive, I am interested in refining my thoughts on this important topic.

For myself (and speaking as a non-expert and non-economist, who hasn’t spent enough time working it through) I tentatively favour just making ring-fenced funding, stopping this commercialisation of education, and just making the whole thing free (paid for by taxes).

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