Universities – Who Should Pay?

I’m going to stray a little bit from my usual focus on language learning and I’m going to talk about education, in general. I’m going to talk universities and, specifically, refer to the strikes that we’re experiencing here in Canada in the Province of Quebec where university students have been striking for weeks now in protest against the government. 

In Canada education is a provincial jurisdiction and the Quebec government decided that the university fees, the fees that the student’s pay, should increase from, I can’t remember exactly, but $3,250 a year to $3,750. It goes up $300 or something, which is less than is paid in the other provinces in Canada which I think average around $5,000 and significantly less than the cost of a university education because the government pays most of the cost. Once you add in all the professors, the buildings, the research and everything else, it’s about $25 to $30,000 a year that it costs to put someone through university. The students are paying $3,000 or whatever.

Steve Kaufmann

So, first of all, to me it’s absolutely ludicrous that these students who are being subsidized to the tune of 85% of their university education are striking. They’re saying I’m not going to go to this class that the rest of the taxpayers have paid for me to attend; I’m going to stay home. What’s more, they have been quite violent in the streets, overturning cars, preventing other students from going to class, and their professors, many of them, have expressed great support for these students, you know, great leaders of tomorrow, blah, blah, blah. Well, to my mind, those professors shouldn’t get paid as long as those students are not going to class because of the rest of the society is paying for that service and paying for these students to go to class. 

The reality is that the majority of students at universities come from middleclass and more affluent families. In fact, it’s a transfer, it’s going into the sort of tax revenues of the state and deciding that we’re going to give X-amount of this to people who are already better off than the average and probably did better at school therefore maybe have other advantages in terms of their ability to learn academic subjects. Those people are going to end up doing better in society. It’s proven that people with university educations, on balance, statistically do better, so they’re going to end up with more income. 

The society has been subsidizing these people, but the students now feel not enough. We need more subsidies. So it’s really about money. It’s not about ideals. They’re not out there demonstrating for peace or for the environment, they’re saying I don’t want to have to pay more than what I’m paying. I think other people should pay more for me. I find that is not a position I have any great sympathy for.

This has nothing to do with providing bursaries and scholarships for students who come from families that can’t afford it. Unfortunately, in most countries, statistically, the kids that end up in university come from the families that are already better off for a variety of reasons, largely having to do with the fact that better educated people tend to do better in society, better educated people tend to be more willing to insist that their kids study harder and so their kids do study harder and therefore their kids do better and therefore they go to university and so forth and so on.

Okay, that’s point number one. I have no sympathy for those people. Number two, someone said that 75% of parents want their kids to go to university. Twenty-five percent of jobs require a university education, so a lot of these people are at university and will end up in jobs that, in fact, do not require a university education. What’s more, 80% or so of the students, I don’t know what the number is, but certainly of the undergraduates and a lot of the people who are demonstrating in Quebec are undergraduates, study sociology, history, language, linguistics, psychology, commerce, essentially soft subjects. Apparently a comment was made and I don’t know if this is true or not, but the engineering students and the science students are not out there demonstrating. It’s the sociology students, the political science students, etc. that are out there demonstrating. 

Now, what exactly is it that they learn. Why do they need to go to university? I went to university. I went to Sciences Po in Paris. I went to the odd class, but didn’t have to. At the end of the year, they published what was called the polycopiés. Because we had a stenographer take notes during all the lectures, we could buy the course, what the professor had to say during the year, so we read those. So during the year I would do reading on a wide-range of subjects, this was political science, international relations, international trade, whatever it might be. I would do a lot of reading, in French of course, and then when it came close to exam time I would read what the professor has to say. I knew I had to give him back what he said, otherwise I wouldn’t get a very good mark, but I didn’t need to be at the school. 

Today, I could get the equivalent of this polycopié, this stenograph course, from the best professors and there are universities that are putting courses up online. The University of Texas at Austin, so far as languages, tremendous resources for language learning, MIT and others, so what the students in Quebec should be protesting about is not the fact that they have to pay $3,500 or $3,600 instead of $3,300. Why does it cost so much money for them to take these courses? What I think we should do is give everyone $10,000. Not just the few that are able to get into university, we should give everyone $10,000 per year for four years. Call it $50,000. 

If you graduate from high school you get $50,000, you can spend it on any valid post-secondary education that you want to take. You have to qualify so that if you study online at MIT, that’s good. If you’re studying language online and study at the University of Texas at Austin, that’s good. If you study at LingQ, that’s good. Whatever you choose to do, that’s good. If you’re studying languages or if you’re studying sociology, read books. You have this money to spend. Then there should be a separate testing organization where people have to write essays, actually write them where they’re tested on their knowledge in these subjects.

Now, when it comes to science and engineering and so forth that’s a different story. I think it should be free if you want to study engineering or if you want to study the hard sciences which we require. If we want to have an innovative society we need innovators. We need people who understand those things. Those people their education should be free, but the 80% of people who go to university today and study gender studies, the history of I don’t know what and so forth and so on, all these courses which very often they take because they couldn’t get into the ones they wanted to attend, they should be able to study wherever they want. They shouldn’t have to go to a university that costs $30,000 a year. It just doesn’t make sense. If those people are unhappy that they, their parents or whoever are going to spend $3,600 a year, if those people had to spend the full shot they wouldn’t go. 

A good example of a good education system, from what I can tell, is in Germany where fewer students go to university, a much higher number learn a trade. If I look at the people that I’ve known in say the forest industry who market wood products, many of them have studied wood products, the marketing of wood products. They have learned a trade. Reading about Noam Chomsky and all this other stuff, you can do it on your own. You don’t need, necessarily, to be in a class. 

Now, a lot of people say the university is a wonderful place to meet people, meet your future spouse and so forth, very good, stimulating and stuff like that, fine, so why are we only saying that 30-40% of the population gets that privilege paid for by the taxpayer at the expense of hospital beds. Schools in the primary sector where we have a lot of people graduating who can’t read properly, we take money away from that and we give it to these people so they can have a good time. I don’t understand that argument, but that’s what you hear all the time.

Of course, the other thing is that the universities issue tickets. If you get a degree that’s going to guarantee you a better job, regardless of the content of what you actually learned. None of that really matters. You have a diploma, now you’re going to get a better job. We should take the diploma-issuing function away from the institutions that deliver the education. If you need to get a diploma, you need to demonstrate that you know X, Y, Zed or that you can express yourself well or that you speak a language or you’re familiar with whatever, go and write the test. It shouldn’t matter whether you learned it online or at the library or wherever, just make these tests very rigorous. The sort of issuing of the ticket to success shouldn’t be sort of the monopoly of these universities that are bloated, inefficient and a big drain on our GDP.

So there you have it. As you probably know by now, I tend to get quite opinionated on a lot of these subjects. That’s certainly my take, I put that forward for discussion and I look forward to your comments.

2 comments on “Universities – Who Should Pay?

As someone who did most of my degrees in Canada and a second MA in Switzerland before completing the doctorate, it’s distressing to learn about students going on strike. When I studied, it was always the staff that disrupted normal affairs, and sometimes with decent grievances I could get behind.

Creating a financial incentive for completing high school makes sense. Looked at one way, countries that don’t charge (or don’t charge much) for university do something like that – I’ve seen this myself when I taught university in Germany. There, I was stunned by how much smarter the average student was compared to those I’d met in Canada and the U.S.

Nonetheless, the question we need to face these days is on what authority any university can legitimately grant any degrees. I’ve read studies that the average scholarly paper has less than one reader on average, and yet publishing remains the standard. Even if tenure were working, it apparently takes on average 30 years before the average tenure-track professors gets to say what they really think, and I recall warnings not to dare outshine anyone else in the departments I’ve worked by publishing more. Inviting more individuals of accomplishment from outside these strange metrics would (likely) do students a lot of good.

The many problems aside, I’m glad I completed university to the end, and glad I did so before the current meltdowns started. I got a great education, learned to create a university of my own (albeit a very narrowly focused on), and hold it to at least some portrait of the ideal of what a university can achieve for people. Perhaps entrepreneurs will rise (and some seem to be) that can at least give the broader liberal arts and language learning I benefitted from a place in societies again without need of “trigger warnings” because the people in attendance earned their want of attendance. Myself, I mowed lawns and applied to every scholarship I could get to keep the debt as low as possible.

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