Monday, February 20, 2017
Last updated: 1 year ago

Katic: The problem with post-secondary education isn’t that it’s too accessible

File photo Geoff Lister/The Ubyssey

Nearly every week, the media tells a distressing story of the financial prospects of our graduating class: overwhelming student debt, depressed wages for perhaps a decade, want of basic cognitive capacity (graduates lack the “critical skills,” “problem-solving, writing skills, social intelligence and adaptive thinking” necessary for today’s workforce).

But don’t fear: the Globe and Mail has a plan to deliver us from this Dickensian future of functional illiteracy and debt servitude. “RE:EDUCATION,” a series launched Oct. 6, proposes a “radical overhaul of the system,” including such innovative suggestions as lifting the tuition cap — which in B.C. forbids domestic tuition from rising more than the rate of inflation — and creating a two-tiered system of education.

The first tier would be composed of a small number of elite research institutions (similar to the Ivy League) for students who “value their proximity to the top scholars and researchers.” The larger and more varied second tier would de-emphasize research and focus on remedial teaching and “up-skilling” through a vague balance of online and offline courses.

But wait, there’s more! These schools would offer you a “deification of choice” through degree customization, including add-ons and bonus “degree badges,” turning your education into something like buying World of Warcraft expansion packs.

Why the overhaul? The “massification” of education. We made the silly mistake of making education too accessible, creating a glut of over-qualified and under-employed riffraff.

They think it would really be best for everyone that you leave these august halls of higher learning to the bluebloods, and set that tattered copy of The Republic down as you march back to the salt mines from whence you came.

Returning to the world of reality, I have good news for you: there is no crisis in higher education, and certainly not one that demands this sort of transformation.

Despite the recession, completing a post-secondary degree, by the numbers, remains the single most prudent financial decision you can make. Next time you see a melodramatic warning of your impending poverty or read a long treatise about how we have to “fix” universities, I want you to remember a few facts.

• The unemployment and underemployment rate of young, university-educated workers is substantially lower than those without university educations. During the recession, unemployment rates for the university-educated increased only 0.6 per cent for men and 1.2 per cent for women.

• The income gains from post-secondary education are as large as they have ever been, and the wage gap between those with and without post-secondary degrees is only increasing. According to a UBC co-authored study, those with university educations can expect 40 to 50 per cent more lifetime income on average.

• Youth unemployment is not some peculiar consequence of a Canadian policy of over-education, but a phenomena across the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, Canada has been praised for being well below the OECD average.

• Young graduates are indeed suffering, but the problem is not over-education or the failure of the academy, it is a sluggish economy. Low aggregate demand coupled with austerity policies threatens to prolong this economic stagnation.

Instead of boosting spending to stimulate the economy, the 2012 provincial budget has made substantial cuts to post-secondary education. This is the continuation of a trend since the 1970s, when 90 per cent of post-secondary revenue was covered by government (by 2000, just 57 per cent, according to the Canadian Federation of Students).

Anyone interested in the financial plight of Canadian students should plead with the government to reinvest in post-secondary education. We should not use the consequences of economic stagnation as a pretence for thinly veiled calls to segregate our universities across class lines.

  • Alec Lee

    Whether we agree or disagree about our entitlement to education and the value it adds to students in its current form is besides the point. Education is changing, whether or not you choose to admit it.

    1. Education is unsustainably expensive (and increasingly so). The cost of educating the university is driven up faster than the rate of inflation primarily due to the cost of rapidly iterating technology and the demand for qualified graduates to have trained on industry-relevant platforms.

    Since all you need for your Arts degree is a pile of tomes, a drum circle (aka discussion group), and a laptop (wanna save money on your education? Get yourself a PC instead of that Macbook Pro), wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to subsidize the rising costs of an engineering degree?

    By separating education institutions by their fundamental goals, we ensure costs are directed to the right places. You seem to be under some (rather interesting) delusion that the institutions with “proximity to the top scholars and researchers” will be more expensive, more elite, and more highly sought-after than the “remedial teaching” institutions. Yet, certain degrees at BCIT will already cost you more than some at UBC. Why? Because those graduating from BCIT are better-prepared to add value to the marketplace (my euphemism for the “salt mines” where BCIT graduates are found slaving away, often for meager wages of $20-$80/hr).

    Many of these programs have long waiting lists and are incredibly selective. The cost of these programs should reflect the demand for those positions in the job market. This way you can kill two birds with one stone: first, Arts and similar degrees at the “scholarly” institutions will likely have tuition drop substantially due to being inherently low-cost and now being broken of the tether of subsidizing other more expensive degrees. Second, education will be better optimized to be delivered at a higher, theoretical level to those who desire it, and to a practical, skills-oriented level for those who see the former as superfluous. The current method of consolidating them all into a cohort of thousands of students who purportedly care about “proximity to the top scholars” is a fallacy.

    2. Education is increasingly decentralized. One only needs to begin listing the seemingly never-ending higher education startups (EdX, Udacity, Udemy, Coursera, etc.) to realize that the foundation of education as we know it will be swept away beneath our feet before we know it. Higher education institutions, governments, societies of developed nations, and individuals will all need to adapt to these changes.

    I no longer need proximity to a top scholar to have proximity to a top scholar. Harvard and Stanford don’t “produce” multinational corporation founders; those founders can be equally successful after learning to write code and sell their idea. A testament to this changing reality is changing recruitment processes in high tech: skill is valued high above pedigree and this bias is only strengthening.

    Our increasingly meritocratic society will greatly devalue a degree from an Ivy League or its equivalent because the genius coder from Pakistan can do the same work for 1/10th the pay and doesn’t even need to be sponsored for a visa anymore; he can just work from home.

    3. And yet, despite your presumptuousness about this sad impending world destroying the integrity of education and its rising costs, you seem to have discredited your own argument. If it’s true, as you say, that the burden of education has been increasingly placed on the student since the 1970s (nearly half a century), why then are we not worse off as a society now than we were then? If you are correct, we should already see the effects of this two-tiered society. And yet we don’t, at least as far as education is concerned.

    In the end, perhaps you’re right. I can only speak from experience; after graduating from both BCIT and UBC 18 months ago I’ve started my own online education company. I’ve hired locally and I’ve hired coders in Pakistan. The fact that I’m able to pay my bills with increasing ease is reason enough for me to be confident in what I say about the future of this industry. While we don’t know for sure what the future will hold (maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong), what we do know is that higher education as it is designed today is broken by the standards of tomorrow. The sooner we adapt, the better.