“Learning is not child's play; we cannot learn without pain.”

As I near the end of my formal education (I don't see a Ph.D. in my future), I have been reflecting on the value of my post-secondary degrees. For me at 24, it's hard to imagine how I'll ever be able to have savings, own property or support a family with the skills and education I have right now. When I started university, I hoped that it would be the more practical and safe path, and that working hard would take me the places I wanted to go. Now I know that's not how it goes. Life has never been that simple. But, then again, no one before us had to pay so much for an education. There's no way of ignoring that what I've learned about myself and the knowledge I've (hopefully) retained from university is incredibly valuable. It tempers how mad I feel when I think about the disparity between what my family and I have invested into my education and what there is to show for it.

I got very upset this morning when I listened to a panel of administrators, professors, and government officials talk about the value of university education on the CBC's Sunday Edition. The second hour of the panel allowed the audience to put forward questions to the panel. The forum called "The Final Examination Question: Is a University Education Worth the Cost?" did nothing to dispel any idea that the University is not built to serve its students.

A good discussion is constructive but it was outrageous that no one could agree what the university was for. If the panel is at all representative of the people who make the decisions at universities, then I'm going to think long and hard about finishing my last course and coughing up thousands dollars to get my piece of parchment. What will I gain from it? According to the panellists, nothing but self-satisfaction. Not one school official said that going to university was going to do a good job of preparing you for the workforce.

Of course, a university is not a technical or professional school. Universities are also places of scholarship and research. But students are largely there because they feel that they have to be, because they can't get the jobs they want before they know they've written a paper that applies Foucault to Facebook. Schools advertise the quality of their teaching; the teaching is supposed to make us more intelligent, tolerant and giving members of society. Now, can they prove that their teaching will open opportunities for us to contribute to society that are more satisfying than working another McJob?

The CBC program was recorded at Dalhousie University, so there were students in the audience from King's College, Dal, and other nearby universities. Several students asked why they had to work several jobs, and sometimes had to go to the food bank, to survive the demands of getting a post-secondary education. Others were more accepting of the hardships that come with having to support yourself through university but asked why they couldn't expect a job after investing their time and money. The panel could only respond by saying that you should try harder and/or think about "the joy of learning." (Kudos, nonetheless, to Michael Enright for being the voice of mediation and reason, and standing up for the students.)

Later this morning, I was doubly sad when I read the education issue of the New York Times magazine, published this week. The issue covers some innovative new programs and initiatives in schools happening right now. I was particularly impressed by the joint journalism-computer science program at New York University covered in "Hacks Into Hackers" This is a program that prepares its students for working in more than one industry, and gives them unique analytical and problem-solving skills. Instead of shaping students who might be able to get by today, this NYU program could produce professionals with skills that will be valued ten years from now. I'm jealous.

NYU students pay tuition fees that would make most bank accounts weep, which explains why Canadian universities, which are partly publicly funded, mostly cannot offer programs like this. But how can the schools, in good conscience, accept students, take their tuition, treat them like suckers, and then go on national radio and talk about it like it's the students' problem?

In related news: The jackpot for Lotto 6/49 this week is $3.5 million.


Chelsea said...

I really want to listen to that show, but I don't know if I can bring myself to do it; might have a rage attack. Having gone to UBC and realizing from day 1 that it's all about working the system to your advantage, because you WILL be treated like a number and a dollar sign otherwise, it's shameful that that fact is so blatantly flaunted by the system itself.
It's telling that so many MPub students don't finish their reports once they get a job.

Deanne said...

It's difficult to reconcile their notions of the joy of learning with the crushing pain of repaying student loans. I would not have received a job in a professional work environment without a degree, so I'm glad I did it.

However, it stings a bit to realize that, for example, most journalists 40-50+ working today learned on the job. They finished high school, and the cost of their professional training was shouldered by the employers who saw value in investing in talented people who would stay with them for 20 years.

David Beers from the Tyee confirmed at a talk last summer that most early Publishing and Journalism masters programs were heavily influenced by newspapers and publishing houses who were interested in offloading their training costs.

They offload these training costs onto universities, who clearly do not take responsibility for creating "job ready" graduates.

So, students pay: in time out of the work force, in tuition fees, and in interest on students loans.

Society pays as well: the opportunity cost of a labour force tied up in academia, and in the delayed adulthood of people waiting to buy property and start families until their thirties (if at all) once their students loans have been paid down.

It seems like Canada is stuck in limbo: neither fully dedicated to the private or public post-secondary education system, and paying dearly for it.

jmax said...

Megan, as your prof, I feel I have to respond.

There are two reasons why we go to University, and why University is a good thing overall. The first is a social, collective reason; the second is more individual.

The social reason is this: the University is a functional part of society and culture at large. It's the big, general-purpose thinktank that serves our collective relationship to ideas. Universities have been fulfilling this role, more or less successfully, for over 1000 years. It's the one socially sanctioned place where 'ideas' are the focus and the raison d'etre -- as opposed to producing stuff. We go to the University to participate in that (because being part of it makes a life richer in some pretty straightforward ways than a life without it) and also to help perpetuate the whole system; it takes ongoing generations of people to keep the whole thing going. As I say, for over a thousand years.

The individualistic reason is more self-serving. To be blunt, this is about social (or class-) mobility. You go to University to experience and connect with cultural capital. You come out of it better connected and steeped in a 'higher' (I'm being blunt, remember) culture. This is why parents send their kids to University. It gives you a competitive advantage in your professional career, not because of what you learned, but because you were steeped in it. This is much more obvious with the Ivy League, but it still holds true for places like SFU.

Neither of these things are reducible to job-preparation. They're not supposed to be. It requires a longer view. But that longer view isn't totally abstract; nor is it as vacuous as your post suggests.

Now, all that said, the University today is in a world of trouble. But that's a symptom of the larger political climate, not a failing of the institution itself; Universities are held up to an unattainable level of accountability (which gets expressed in the hand-wringing you describe in this post). As a result, Universities are not funded properly today, and student debt it just one of the associated problems.

To Chelsea: it's also telling that so many MPub students who don't finish their reports because they got a job still feel like they ought to.

Chelsea said...

@John: Very true. It comes back to a disparity between the social/individual reasons you mentioned for people to take higher education. The MPub is an interesting case because it combines the professional /technical type of schooling with the more traditional academic. If you take it mostly for the professional side then find out your employer doesn't care if you actually have the degree or not (I remember this came up in the last chat we had, funny), the worth of that final undertaking might come under question. I shouldn't be making assumptions about what/why other people do anyway, just love the discussion.

On the topic of education: watch the trailer for Waiting for Superman