Sunday, February 22, 2009

Back to Basics

Have we over-invested in third level education in Ireland? I'm beginning to think so, and the recession might be a good time to rethink our educational priorities as a nation. The debate about third level fees masks the real debate, namely: is paying for so many young people to go on to third level (and fourth level), as currently structured, the most effective use of their time and our money?

Arguably not. After all, the intention behind taxpayer funding of an educational system is to meet the nation's ongoing needs for suitably educated adults and workers. Achieving that outcome doesn't necessarily require the education system that we currently have; let alone the disproportionate share of taxpayer funding versus private funding or self-funding. But the issue goes much further - as Wilk Wilkinson notes in relation to the US debate about the value of college education:
The issue isn’t “quantity of educated citizens,” it is the “quantity of citizens with economically remunerative skills,” which just isn’t the same thing. The pre-schooling distribution of ability to acquire economically-valued skills may put a pretty hard limit on the usefulness of pushing people to spend ever more time in college. ... You can think of this in IQ terms, like Charles Murray, or in early childhood development terms, like James Heckman. But it remains that inequalities in skill-acquisition abilities may not be ameliorable by getting more kids to spend more time in college.

... I think there’s a huge amount of wasted potential out there, and bad policy is to blame. I think inequalities in the quality of primary education are very important, and that policies that would improve the quality of primary instruction promise both large gains in equality and overall economic performance.
Measures such as the proportion of Leaving Cert students going on to third level may actually be irrelevant to the task of maximising 'the quantity of citizens with economically remunerative skills'. Which in turn is only one (albeit an important one) of the outcomes that should be inherent in an effective education systems. Especially one I'm obliged to pay for as a taxpayer. Another such outcome is that of social mobility and the chance to escape from poverty. The problem here is that work by James Heckman and others (read this 221 slide opus if you have the time) points to the formative influences of early education (pre-school and primary) and parenting on subsequent lifetime earnings and career success. Influences that cannot be 'made up for' through easier access to third level education later on.

Which is why I find the 'random' nature of the government's education policies to be quite disturbing. Take the recent decision to cut special teacher support for children with mild learning difficulties in 119 schools. The 'savings' from such measures will pale in comparison to the costs of those children falling further and further behind their peers and then entering a workforce without 'economically remunerative skills'.

We need to take the government out of primary and secondary educational provision as far as possible. Let individual schools decide how best to allocate budgets, and let headmasters and headmistresses be empowered to hire the best teachers they can afford and fire those who are not up to the job - and pay them by results. Also, let religious, secular, charitable and private enterprises be the providers, subject to sensible quality standards.

As for third level education, I wonder will young people vote with their feet? The re-introduction of third level fees will have several consequences. Students (and their parents) will look much harder at the costs and benefits of 3-4 years in full-time education: more if you throw in post-graduate study. Right now, a lot of students look on third level as a form of 'sheltered employment' - an adult daycare scheme that postpones their inevitable confrontation with the real world (aka: the labour market, especially one in recession).

But I have spoken to a number of quite bitter trainee solicitors and accountants recently who have found themselves booted out of graduate recruitment programmes in the big legal and accounting firms for failing various professional exam stages. If they had had to borrow to pay their third level fees before even beginning their training then they would be in an even worse situation than they find themselves: victim of the great college hoax as it has been called in the United States.

And yet the demands of a 21st century economy like Ireland's requires that we do produce people with the right mix of education, training and skills to meet the changing labour force needs of businesses. But there is no reason why that task needs to be channelled through institutions little changed in a thousand years. Initiatives such as iTunes University have been shown to get better results than the plain old lecture hall and notes variety. Tie that into changing workplace practices (look out for a surge in internships, apprenticeships and sabbaticals) and you can begin to see how third level education could be more effectively delivered in the workplace rather than on the campus.

And it might even cost me less as a taxpayer. Though I suspect I'll be paying a lot more as a parent. As it should be.

5 comments:

  1. gerard, I will send a more detailed comment later but Heckman's work is too frequently being cited as a reason not to invest in third level. He does not say this. My interpretation of his point is that remediation of disadvantage is inefficient if not done early in life. This does not imply that you do not invest in third level. In fact the returns to investing in third level may be high precisely because many third level students have had so much invested in them beforehand. Having said that, few economists at present are happy with the free fees arrangement.

    You should be careful though of setting up a competition between early and late education. Whether privately or publicly I still believe that the returns to education literature suggests that we should invest more in higher education.

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  2. i should also say immediately that developments in the use of technology such as the one you mention will have a major impact on the way third level is conceived. But I don't buy phrases like "college hoax". Like Im sure many of your readers, neither of my parents went beyond 14 years old in the school system. I happily grasped the opportunity to continue to PhD with both hands and I still have a huge respect for third level despite some of its failings.

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  3. If one examines the policies adopted by various countries, one finds that motivation and quality of teaching plays an enormous role in the learning productivity and the relationship between investments and outcomes. The Korea's have very poor pupil teacher ratios at primary level, but very high quality well paid teachers with motivated students. The Finns on the other hand set and maintain high standards of primary education. There is a 40% chance of an intervention with a primary school kid to help them not fall behind. Surprisingly there is little focus on measurement of attainment at primary level, and teachers work less hours than Ireland and are paid 25%less. In addition they must have a Masters degree.

    Both countries have produced the results. The Finns just edge out everyones else (See OECD report) in terms of productivity of education.

    My point: a)Primary education is the foundation stone of a knowledge based society.
    b)Setting and maintaining high standards is a policy driven agenda - not an economic one.
    c) Its crazy that the Government seeks to disadvantage the most vulnerable of our society i.e. kids with learning difficulties. We will pay for such a policy for a long time.
    d) A poor economy may well provide more motivation for students to learn. We became fat and unmotivated.
    e) There is no harm on "putting a bit of skin on the table". It creates motivation for both parents and college students to know that - its not just a free ride - someone has to pay.

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  4. Liam, take your point about Heckman: my understanding is he says early intervention enhances non-cognitive skills, later intervention enhances cognitive skills.

    But I'm not arguing against third level education per se: merely that our current model of (predominantly) full time third level education over a period of 3-4 years for the majority of school leavers is not necessarily the best way to equip students nor the economy with the optimal skills mix.

    And when money is tight, then maximising bang for buck might mean giving more weight to primary level rather than to third level, whilst at the same time stimulating the latter through, say, workplace schemes, adult learning initiatives etc.

    And, of course, letting the people with PhD potential get on with realising it.

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  5. another thing to note. Is if Uni education had been not free would less people have done it? Would they have taken up jobs in the productive sectors of the economy. Which over the last 5 years was construction. How many more unemployed and indeed unemployable people would we have in Ireland now?

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