Sunday, 14 February 2016

Bring back free education

Recently, for the first time in my life, I considered voting for the New Zealand Labour Party. Oh, they’ll have to smarten up a long way if they want me to do more than consider. The Greens are still far and away the best option on the table. But after a thirty-two-year love affair with neoliberalism, Labour are finally returning to the sort of policies that a Labour party ought to be built around. They’re offering free tertiary education.

Well, to a very small and limited degree compared to what everyone in this country had until 1989. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Labour were the ones who first charged students fees for their education. The National Party were elected in 1990 on a promise to remove those fees, which they did – and then cut funding to universities and polytechs so that they were forced to charge much higher amounts to stay afloat.

When I started university in 1996, paying for education was still a new and shocking thing. Many families had been blindsided, with no chance to save up for it, so we all had to borrow massive amounts of money to get through, and that became the norm. National set up the student loans scheme, which has become an ever bigger asset on the government books with each year since. We student activists fought back with marches and occupations and letter campaigns and various other tactics.

In 1999 we sent delegations to every political candidate meeting in town, not to disrupt them in any way but to make sure that education always got a mention at question time. That, along with the protests, helped push education from #6 to #2 in the “issues of concern” polls, and I think that had, well, more than a negligible effect on the election that year, when National was voted out and Labour in.

Issue #1 was taxes. National MPs went about that year with tears in their eyes for the skilled youth of New Zealand, who were apparently leaving in droves for other shores due to financial hardship induced by taxes. They called it the “brain drain”. I was one of quite a few people, I think, who pointed out to them that student loan repayments were a bit more oppressive, and a bit more specific to skilled youth, than taxes. I had the satisfaction of flummoxing Bill English with that one.

Apparently National did take heed, because now that they’re back in office they’ve introduced legislation – such is National’s compassion for skilled youth in financial hardship – to detain people who go overseas and skip payments. Obviously they can only do that when the people come back to visit, and a couple of weeks ago the law claimed its first victim.

As if to demonstrate what neoliberalism does to a culture’s soul, the first comment on my Facebook feed was “No sympathy for the dude who didn’t pay his student loan.” The general feeling of the conversation was that if we have to work so hard to pay for our education, then how is it fair that some people get it handed to them for free by swanning off overseas? There have been similar remarks about Labour’s proposal. I guess I can understand that. But I think the indignation is misdirected.

The effects of education are what economists call a “public good”. The classic public good would be something like a park, a road, or a fire brigade; you can’t stop people from using it (it’s “non-excludable”) and one person using it doesn’t mean there’s any less of it for others (it’s “non-rivalrous”). And if you can’t stop people using it, then not letting people use it until they pay for it won’t work.

Knowledge is a far less excludable good than a fire brigade. The more you know (about the right things), the more good you are able to do and the less likely you are to screw things up for other people. You could run a state so that only people who pay their taxes get their houses protected from fire; it would be stupid, but you could. But if someone doesn’t chip in for people to learn architecture, no-one will build a shoddy house just for them to live in. If they don’t chip in for people to learn ecology, no-one will set off an environmental crisis on their land to teach them a lesson.

At this point I need to take a small detour. I just said that knowledge is a public good if it’s “about the right things”, and I can see someone pointing out that (say) cosmology or Babylonian literature won’t be much help in most situations. Maybe we should fund only learning that’s useful? That of course would be a political foot in the door; the next step would be to sneak climate science, social work, or trade union history onto the “useless” list. But the other thing about knowledge is that you never know what’s going to be useful until you know it.

Take X-ray machines. They’re indispensable in modern medicine, but we would never have had them if someone hadn’t first studied radiation out of pure curiosity. That’s my answer when well-meaning people complain about how much public money (of the scrapings left after defence and corporate subsidies have had their pick of the trough) goes to curiosity-driven sciences like space exploration; it also applies to teaching people about what the curiosity-driven sciences find. Any student may some day put two hitherto disparate facts together in their head and come up with an idea that’ll change the world.

And this applies to old knowledge as well as new knowledge. Forty years ago, microchips were huge, and expensive, by today’s standards. Computer programs had to be optimized to do as much with as little processing power as possible. Then chips became small and cheap, and programmers had all the processing power they could eat. But our chips are now so tiny they’re reaching the physical limit of how many circuits we can stuff into a given volume of silicon without it overheating – yet demand for software continues to grow. Aren’t we lucky we kept the old chip-saving algorithms lying around?

That’s a very small-scale example. A bigger one: within our lifetimes, like it or not, we are going to see the end of fossil fuels. This is going to change our economy in all sorts of ways, many of which will come as surprises. We had better not throw out anything we might learn from the past about what works and what doesn’t when all your energy sources depend on the weather. The principle holds true across all kinds of domains – cultural, economic, military. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argues convincingly that Spain would never have colonized the Americas if the Native Americans had had history books.

Knowledge is a public good. But of course it’s a private good as well; that’s undeniable. That’s why we get educated in the first place, after all – a degree is a necessary step up to most careers these days. So, someone will say, we should subsidize part of everyone’s education, to recompense the public good, and ask the student to pay for the rest, to recompense the private good. And as that’s what New Zealand already does (75% of most courses is paid by the government), we’re sweet, aren’t we?

Then on top of that there’s what economists for reasons unknown to me call “moral hazard”. When you adopt a kitten from the SPCA, they charge you some cash for your new little furball. This is only partly to cover their costs, which after all you’re helping bring down by taking one hungry mouth off their hands. More importantly, it’s so that the animals only go to people who are willing to commit that kind of money to their welfare.

I’ve seen people apply a similar argument to education: “If you’re not willing to pay anything for it, it can’t be all that important to you.” Education costs the taxpayer a fair chunk of money, unless the students cover everything, which nobody is suggesting. You don’t want people to come along and take that money out if they’re not serious enough to push ahead, get their qualification, and do something with it.

Both of these are legitimate concerns, but both are answered by the same consideration. Tuition fees are not all you contribute towards your education. If you have any intention of passing, you also have to attend classes, pay attention, take notes, do your assignments, and study. The University of Otago’s guidelines for study time add up (I calculated it once) to 35–45 hours per week for a typical degree. I make my living doing only the note-taking part, for students who have disabilities. It’s not the weightiest form of unpaid labour in our society – that would be parenting – but it’s real work, trust me.

So that’s how I answer people who object to free education because it’s “getting something for nothing”. It’s not for nothing. It’s for a huge swack of labour, which if you were being paid the minimum wage instead would come to tens of thousands of dollars over your three years. I have never known any argument but this one change people’s minds about free education, which is why I tried to get a campaign going around the slogan “Study is a full-time job” when I worked for the Otago Polytechnic Students’ Association. It ran for a month or two locally but didn’t get picked up by the other associations.

Thus far, I hope I’ve demonstrated (a) that the state ought to fund education (because knowledge is a public good) and (b) that students still contribute even if they don’t pay tuition (because study is a full-time job). Does it follow that the best balance is when the state provides all the funding and the student provides only the labour? Here’s another consideration which points in that direction.

I’m not entirely sold on what’s called “meritocracy”, the idea that jobs and leadership positions and all the associated benefits should be handed out solely on the basis of competence – at least, not when it rides on the tacit assumption that employers are unbiased judges of competence. But if you do like competence, you should support initiatives which will give people the skills that make up the learned aspect of competence and ferret out the natural talents that make up the unlearned aspect. If you’re an employer, wouldn’t you want the pick of the biggest possible bunch when you’re hiring?

Any price imposed on students creates a barrier which has little to do with competence. Skills and talents don’t go with money, not when you’re as young as students generally are. Tuition fees therefore promote mediocre students from rich families at the expense of better students from poor families. If you want to maximize competence in the workforce, your best bet is to remove all financial barriers to education.

You might think genetics would change that – that talented students would have talented, and therefore rich, parents. Unfortunately genes do two things that screw up such expectations. If a single gene controls a trait, it can lie hidden if it’s recessive, or hide another gene if it’s dominant, and then the trait can pop up out of nowhere after generations. And if lots of genes control the trait (which appears to be the case with intelligence), you get what’s called “regression to the mean”: however exceptional a parent is, on average her or his children will be less so.

Someone must have figured this out in the 1990s, because I presume that removing the financial barrier was the idea behind the student loans scheme. It’s better than having no finance available at all, but that’s about the best that can be said for it. Of course academic salaries and other costs of educating people have to be paid somehow; the question is whether that’s better done by loans or by taxation. To me the answer is clear: taxation.

It’s not hard to think up negative effects that taxation might cause. I disagree with the more drastic ones I’ve heard suggested, and I think the realistic ones are offset by the benefits of the services they pay for, but I won’t argue that here because it’s not the point. The point is that all of them will also arise from loan repayments, plus a couple more. Taxes don’t affect people’s credit rating; student loans do.

Furthermore, taxes are fairer than loans. Getting an education boosts your chances of a good career, but the key word there is “chances”. Life involves taking risks as well as working hard and being smart – and they’re real risks. Not everyone gets lucky. If your education was loan-funded, then as well as missing out on your chosen career you also have a giant debt on your head for the rest of your life. No wonder some people leave the country. With tax-funded education, the amount you pay is proportional to how well your education lived up to your career advisor’s promises.

Loans are also unfair in a strikingly ironic way which wasn’t quite as obvious in the 1990s. Who has to study the longest to get their chosen career? Academics. Academics, young academics who studied under the loans scheme, will therefore have disproportionately high student loans to pay off. That means they’ll demand high salaries to try and cover them. Now what’s the big cost of education that the loans scheme is supposed to be covering in the first place? Some courses have material costs, but all of them have to pay academic salaries. The loans scheme thus raises the cost of the very thing it’s supposed to be paying for.

I conclude, therefore, that student loans are an economic and moral mess from start to finish. I endorse the Labour Party’s proposition and call upon them (and the Greens, and everyone else on that side of politics) to expand it. New students should get their education for free. If that doesn’t seem fair to people still struggling under student loan debt, that debt should be forgiven. And if that doesn’t seem fair to those who’ve already paid theirs, they should get tax breaks. That’s going to cost money and take a long time to implement. But that’s what you get for letting the problem lie for a generation.

If you really want someone to blame for the problem, don’t look at the occasional loan defaulter overseas. Look at the people who created it, the people who got their own education for free courtesy of their parents’ taxes, and then changed things so that they wouldn’t have to pay for their children’s education either. Look at the rich Baby-Boomers. Look at the people currently running the country. And next time you get the chance, vote them out.

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