The student demonstrations in Montreal against tuition increases have brought attention to the cost of higher education.
Is it worth it? It is well known that most college graduates are graduating with large debts as a result of borrowing money to pay for their education. Is the money a good investment?
The protestors are fairly clear they want the cheapest degree or technical diploma possible. Does that make sense? Is it the degree or diploma that counts or is it the quality of the education that counts?
Although the headlines about tuition are being made in Montreal the issue is just as important here in Manitoba. Students and their families are just as concerned about the cost of post high school education; politicians have picked up on this and instituted a variety of tuition freezes.
According to Business Week magazine, the most expensive university in North America is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The cost of an undergraduate degree there is $189,300, OUCH! The cost of an undergraduate degree from any of Manitoba’s universities is a small fraction of that. How can anyone justify paying the difference?
Business Week calculates the 30-year net return to an MIT graduate is $1,796,000. Was the cost worth it? You decide.
Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal, doesn’t think so. His feelings on the issue are so strong that he has offered $100,000 to young people from the United States and Canada who would stay out of college for two years and work instead on scientific and technological innovations. He calls college the “default activity.”
The fact is, however, that numerous studies have shown that post high school education is an excellent investment. But the question remains, is it the degree or the education that matters? Businesses hire college graduates because a college education indicates an ability to learn, commitment and willingness to sacrifice immediate returns for greater future returns.
After they have a job, however, it’s not the degree that counts, it’s the skills and knowledge the individual has. This too has been proven by numerous studies. The individuals with the better education will go further and make more then others with the same degree.
Would a graduate from one of Manitoba’s universities get the same return as an MIT grad if they paid $189,300 for their education? No. Could Manitoba’s universities provide a better education if they had more money? Yes. Generally one gets what they pay for.
Universities are odd and unique entities, however. University professors traditionally believe that they are accountable to nobody but themselves. The truth is, once they have tenure, they literally are unaccountable.
Back to the protesting students in Montreal, why if it has been proven a better education pays high returns on the investment and there is no doubt a better education costs more money are they protesting? It is probably because they don’t believe they will get a better education if they pay a higher tuition. They believe that the same tenured professors that give good courses will continue to give good courses and the same tenured professors that give lousy courses will continue to give lousy courses. The students are probably right.
Tenure and “sabbatical years” are academic traditions from the middle and dark ages. Tenure was needed for scholars like Galileo and Darwin. Tenure was needed when there wasn’t freedom of speech and the church limited intellectual pursuits. Tenure was never routine, never had anything to do with job security — it was to allow intellectual expression.
In a society where freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights, there is no need for academic tenure. Sabbaticals were needed when collaboration between scholars required physical proximity, in a time when one couldn’t fly across the ocean for a week of experiments, certainly from a time before phones and definitely at a time before free video conferencing via the internet on services like Skype.
These traditions also originated in an age when higher education wasn’t supported by public funds, from taxing hard working people who don’t enjoy or understand tenure and sabbaticals.
The idea that academics should be accountable to no one but themselves is an extension of a myth. When universities were supported by private wealth, noblesse oblige, one doesn’t have to read very much from those days to realize just how obsequious professors were to their benefactors; this is why they started the Age of Enlightenment.
Education beyond high school is necessary for any modern society. More public funds and higher tuitions are necessary to provide the quality of education that is needed to compete on a world scale.
For additional expenditures to be effective, however, the traditions of academic institutions have to be brought forward from the Dark Ages to a set of policies and customs that are appropriate for a modern society.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 24, 2012