Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Politics of Free Tuition (Part II) or, Education, what's it good for?

In my last blog, I tried to argue that the arguments against free tuition -- or, at least some of the ones that we have seen so far -- are rather odd. They are, for instance, imprecise, implying that something bad will follow in train from a better educated society. This is an odd argument and one, I tried to say, that previous generations of Canadians would not have made. Indeed, in the past, previous generations of Canadians would have seen improved public education as a good thing, and they were right. Years and years ago I wrote an honours thesis (I won't claim it was any good) about school reform in nineteenth and early-twentieth century Halifax. One thing I remember from that research is that just about everyone thought improved access to education was good.

What would, then, prompt people to argue that it is bad? Well, they don't really argue that because, of course, they can't. Anyone arguing against education sounds idiotic and would be -- rightly -- called out as such. So, instead, contrary minded arguments are phrased vaguely as potentially serious but imprecise and unspecified problems. Governments, for instance, are not criticized for improving access to education but instead for misguided policies designed to do good but failing because of poor planning. This is a way of saying: "we support the idea but this policy is wrong." Likewise, governments that support free tuition are accused of making "political" decisions. What does this mean? Seriously, take a second and think about it. As I said in my last blog, do not all governments make political decisions? It means nothing, of course, but it sounds bad. It sounds like a government is making a decision in their best interests as opposed to the people they serve.

What lies behind this opposition to "free tuition"? Well, the first thing we should clear up is the idea that education could somehow be bad. It isn't. It is not just that people like education but that education is a good thing and the record is available for anyone to check. Now, I know we can have a debate about what education actually is and that is a good debate to have, too. But, for now, let's put that discussion on hold so that we can focus on the issue at hand. What good is education? Well, it does a number of good things. It lowers crime rates, improves political engagement (voting rates go up with education), increases volunteerism in the community (yes, higher levels of education correlate with higher levels of volunteerism), and improves equality of opportunity. There may be other benefits in terms of health and welfare that I don't know about for sure but which I suppose as well. Moreover, higher levels of formal education increase one's lifetime earnings. To say this in other words, on both an individual and a social level, it is very difficult -- nay, impossible -- to find negative things with regard to increased levels of formal education.

Before, then, you start to agree with someone who opposes "free tuition" (and, I'll get to the problems with it in a future blog) ask yourself this question: what bad happens from education? Seriously, ask yourself that question and ask yourself other ones. How many parents do you know who want their children to be uneducated? (I know, many parents -- myself included -- have problems with the way the school system operates but those parents -- at least the ones I know -- want better education for their children and more of it; not less). How many correlations can you find between education and negative social or economic indicators? Does a higher level of education cause the crime rate to go up? Does it promote inequality? Does it harm voting rates?  Does it make one unhealthier? Does it cause social disorder? Have you ever heard anyone make these arguments? Have you ever seen evidence that sustains them?

I ask these questions to illustrate a point: it is very difficult to argue against higher levels of formal education for society because there simply are not facts that allow one to make that argument. There is no empirical evidence -- and, please, correct me if I am wrong -- to show that education does bad things on an individual level or on a social level. The idea that increased levels of formal education could somehow be bad is counter-intuitive because it should be. It is, to say this again, impossible to make that argument.

Does that mean that education is for everyone? Of course not. To insert that view into what I have said would be a red herring. Does what I have said mean that there are no bad teachers? Again, of course not and that is not what I said. Does it mean that education could not be even better ... well, you get the point. The issue we are discussing is not "could education be better" but "is a higher level of formal education better or worse for the individual and for society?"  And, as I said, the opponents of "free tuition" know this and so they don't make that argument and, instead, use read herrings or imply vague unspecified bad things.

What we have, then, when we look at the evidence, are pretty solid reasons for wanting to improve access to public education. Is what the government of NB has proposed good enough? Likely not. But, is it the first real effort we have seen in this province (and, most of the rest of Canada) for a long time that is designed to try to meet that objective; that is: to create a better educated society. Could it be improved? ... sure could. Should we backtrack, however, because some unspecified bad things might happen? I don't know what different people think but I can tell you how I run my life. I rely on facts. I might like or dislike something on a personal level and most of the time that is good enough for me to make a decision because, after all, it is my life. I am not big on doing things I dislike. But, when I go to make some decisions I rely on facts. I select the bank for my mortgage not because I like the colour of their signs but because of their rates and terms. I vote for candidates not because of the colour of their suits but because of the policies they support. I don't drive a car with a flat tire because I happen to like the paint.

When we look at education as a matter of public policy this is the kind of analysis we need to use. We need to not think about what one person or another happens to prefer, but to think about what one person or another can empirically demonstrate. Here the question might be this: should we back away from a good idea because, say, the government in power might derive some political benefit from it, as the opponents of improved access to postsecondary education seem to suggest? Or, should we continue the discussion on the policy and potentially implement it because it make sense on an empirical level?
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