I was in a setting recently when a speaker asked the assembled crowd: “Who here thinks that tuition isn’t already too high?” The assumption was that everyone would agree that tuition was over priced. I was the exception.

First, it’s important for me to say that I believe in universal access to higher education. Your ability to pay should not be a barrier to a university degree or college diploma. However, I do think it is a good means by which to set tuition rates. More on that later.

What is tuition? Generally, the number is based on the following arithmetic:
Actual cost of the education + Opportunity Premium – Value to Society = Tuition Fee

What does that mean? Let me attempt to break it down:

Actual Cost – this is the sum of expenses a university incurs to educate students divided on a per capita basis. This might sound like a simple number to arrive at, but it is incredibly challenging to know with certainty. Among the difficulties: Is a professor’s salary 100% dedicated to the education of students? If one agrees with the unity of teaching and research, than all research conducted by faculty contributes to student learning. However, this is not always the case. Also, how do you calculate classroom spaces? Not all spaces are created equally. Some take more time to clean? Some have extensive technology; some not.

Opportunity Premium – students who successfully complete higher education are afforded higher salaries. Consistently, university and college graduates earn significantly more than high school graduates. This is a benefit afforded to the individual. Therefore, there is a general understanding that the individual should financially contribute to their education as they are the primary beneficiaries.

Value to Society – in the knowledge economy, a well-educated society helps to ensure the economic success of the state. A well-trained workforce will attract well-paying jobs (that begets higher tax rates, etc.). Therefore the state has an interest in ensuring the education of their citizens. Therefore, as encouragement (or rather, an investment in future returns), the state will discount the cost of higher education.

The debate is not about this arithmetic, but the weight afforded to the different variables. Some argue that the Opportunity Premium should be weighted higher than the Value to Society. Some argue the opposite.

I believe that tuition should be set to the absolute value of the actual costs. It should then be discounted based on one’s ability to pay. This is where society finds its greatest value – creating opportunities for those least able to create them by themselves. To those who find that the cost is too high, I ask them to count that against their opportunity cost; is the added income earned as a result of higher education equal to (or less than) the cost of tuition? When the answer is no, tuition must be lowered. But as the answer is yes in every context, tuition has room to rise.

Part of the solution is education. Those who need support must also know that debt is an acceptable investment. The money that can be earned with a degree is worth far more than the cost of the degree. It must also be based on a real calculation of the ability to pay. Too much emphasis is placed on parental savings, which may not exist. If tuition should be based upon individual merit, than we can’t assume massive savings account accumulated by parents. Greater nuance in financial aid is necessary.

However, tuition freezes or tuition reductions amount to nothing more than disproportionate discounts for the upper and upper-middle classes. It does little to support lower income brackets who already find tuition too high. For those who can afford more, tuition freezes or reductions spare them the full cost of their education.

There is a crass saying: Shoot them all, and let god sort them out. When it comes to tuition, I think we should charge them all what it costs and let financial aid sort them out.

c/o The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)

c/o The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)

In the April 26th edition of The New York Times, Professor Mark C. Taylor argued that “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” Taylor, who is the chair of the religion department at Columbia University, argues that universities need an overhaul akin to that needed for the auto industry. His ideas are thought provoking, but a little misguided. I encourage you to read his op-ed first, but allow me to briefly summarize his suggestions for change:
1.    Overhaul education to eliminate a focus on disciplines;
2.    Abolish departments and replace with “problem-focused programs”;
3.    Increase collaboration between institutions;
4.    Transform traditional dissertations by offering “alternative” theses; and,
5.    Expand the range of professional graduate programs.

Taylor would seem to suggest that disciplines are what you study. I disagree. Disciplines are the way you study it. What you choose to study is the decision of the scholar. However, disciplines train you to undertake that study by providing you with a framework in which to work, a methodology, a scholarly tradition and a societal outlook. Taylor suggests that “problem-focused programs” are a better way to train students. I think there are certainly great benefits to interdisciplinary education. Problem-based investigations are a method to achieve that. However, you can’t ignore depth for the sake of breadth. Also, there is more to learn than problems in this world. How does one appreciate modern art if we only analyze it to identify the problems?

Departments in higher education are generally organized around disciplines. The problem with departments are not that they exist around disciplines, but that a scholar might see it as the “pen in which they must play.” I don’t think that’s the case by and large. In fact, a common refrain I hear is that too many faculty find it difficult to find colleagues with whom they can collaborate in their own departments. Fields have become so specialized, that many scholars need to look to other department and other institutions to find collaborators. Therefore, I think Taylor’s aim for inter-institutional and inter-departmental collaboration is occurring at a higher level then he realizes. However, the Department’s continue to reinforce the strengths of the disciplines and demonstrate how old methodologies can be applied in new ways.

I am more sympathetic to his suggestion that dissertations need to be adaptable to the needs of the student and the focus of their research. A lengthy document may not appropriate or necessary in every case. However, the point of the thesis is to demonstrate advanced original research in a field. Though the page count might drop, the rigour is still necessary. I also agree that higher education needs to be responsive to the need for advanced studies (beyond undergraduate programs) that better prepare students for leadership roles in different professional settings. A new array of professional programs are needed. However, it’s important that institutions retain their integrity and don’t simply become degree farms. A professional master’s program should include not only advanced seminars, but research opportunities and a significant portfolio or written assignment.

Taylor’s comments seem to be motivated out of a concern about the division of labour in higher education. Taylor rightly notes that, “without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.” This dilemma is well described by Marc Bousquet in “How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation.” However, both Taylor and Bousquet suggest that the purpose of a Ph.D. is to become a professor and researcher. I don’t agree. There are personal and professional reasons beyond joining the academy that would lead one to complete a Ph.D. Universities would not be doing a service by denying Ph.D. studies simply because a faculty position did not await the graduates. No university guarantees undergraduates the job of their dreams upon graduation. Why would they do so for Ph.D.’s?

The following is a response to a April 9, 2009 editorial in The Varsity, the student newspaper of the University of Toronto.

I wish to congratulate The Varsity on a strong and successful year. Your newspaper is a great asset to this University. Congratulations!

I also wish to respond to Ms. Levack’s editorial “Down but not out” (April 9, 2009). While Ms. Levack’s perspective is always appreciated and well stated, I found this editorial a tad nihilistic.

First the good news: you’re not the first “Generation Recession.” Those students who departed university in the early 1990s faced an economy in decline, as did those in the early 1980s, the mid-1970s… not to mention the U of T grads that experienced the Generation Depression in the 1930s. Each thought they were experiencing unprecedented circumstances from which the economy would never fully recover; it did, and most have survived the initial stress and strain to found successful and happy lives.

Second, you’re not fucked. Or rather, you’re only as fucked as you want to be. You can choose to be mired in the misery that abounds or you can pledge yourself to change. It’s up to you to decide if you want to be “Tara Reid on Quaaludes” or someone of inspiration, talent and dedication.

Third, program fees are not new to U of T or unusual amongst other universities. Full-time students in the Faculty of Arts & Science are the only students on the St. George campus who don’t pay one lump-sum tuition fee. Other universities – McGill, UWO, and St. FX, among others – have program-based tuition fees. No one can suggest that their students are less active than U of T students as a result. Nor are they free from financial pressures. Ms. Levack’s assertion that the flat fee proposal is “…a terrifying initiative on the way to a creepier, privatized regime, making us the Harvard of the North Korea,” is unfounded and unsupported by fact.

Now for the bad news: the university doesn’t care any more about your university experience than the average student does… and that ain’t much. The zombies that need to be awakened are not your own dreams and ambitions crushed by an insensitive or unconcerned institution. Rather, those in need of reanimation are students who seek nothing more from university than the piece of paper at the end. Students who treat university like a fast food outlet – picking up a few nuggets as they drive through to graduation – get what any fast food patron can anticipate: indigestion. Once students themselves place a higher priority on their experience, the institution will follow.

As Ms. Levack rightly observes, U of T students are smart and resilient. Your experience is based largely on your level of engagement. Students who wait for the administration to deliver the experience you seek will be disappointed. Instead, take action, become engaged, and like Ms. Levack, seek the lessons that exist outside of the classroom.

I’m back…

After a two month hiatus, I am returning to my blog. The lack of posts is the result of not much to say, but also a lack of time. While I imagine I’ll continue to express opinions on politics and the world around me, I want to spend more time talking about critical questions in Higher Education, which is my field of study. This blog will be a forum for more extended reflection. I don’t anticipate the postings will be as frequent, but hopefully more thoughtful.

I have joined the masses on Twitter, the popular micro-blogging website.  I intend to use this site not to answer the question “what are you doing,” but rather: “what am I thinking” (and find worth sharing with others). You’ll find me here.

University Hall at The Ohio State University

University Hall at The Ohio State University

A thoughtful blogger, Socrates Votes, asked a question not too long ago: what’s the purpose of a university. It’s a big question (as most of Socrates Votes’ questions tend to be), but an important one. Much has been written on this subject – perhaps the best of all being Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University. In it, Kerr adroitly chronicles the developing notions of higher education.

Cardinal Newman, speaking before a crowd of Dubliners contemplating the establishment of a new university (see Idea of University), articulated a vision in which students gathered with their masters to contemplate big questions and review classical texts. This vision was rooted in Plato’s Academy, forged by UK institutions like Oxford, and the modern version can be seen in the small liberal arts college.

Abraham Flexner argued for a university that was focused on the training of future scholars through graduate programs and the research productivity. Flexner’s notion was broadly adopted in Germany early in the 21st century (i.e. Humbolt University). Its foundation is in the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and its modern representations are institutions like Johns Hopkins.

Kerr himself coined the term “multiversity” to describe the hybrid intuitions’ that are today best represented by state universities. The “multiversity” seeks to provide a meaningful education, significant research and adds to the demands by adding contributions to the public at large to its grand mission. This is a uniquely American concept that has since spread. In the US, the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act (1862) laid the foundations for the establishment of public universities. In the example of the University of Wisconsin, their motto became “Our campus the state.” Their role was not just to educate and research, but to increase the human capital of their region and develop the economy of their state. This tradition can be rooted in the Sophists of ancient Greece and is now the most dominant model for universities.

Kerr, who was the first Chancellor of UC Berkeley and later President of the University of California system, had a unique ability to offer pithy statements. (He once said the role of a university president was to provide “parking for faculty, football for alumni, and sex for students.”) To summarize these conflicting and competing traditions, he said, “A university anywhere can aim no higher than to be as British as possible for the sake of the undergraduates, as German as possible for the sake of the graduates and the research personnel, as American as possible for the sake of the public at large – and as confused as possible for the sake of the preservation of the whole uneasy balance.” (pg. 18)

So how does a university provide a balance these days? Well most institutions follow a pattern known as “40-40-20.” A faculty member’s time should be divided as follows: 40% of their time for teaching, 40% for research and 20% for public service. So if a university’s purpose is teaching, knowledge development (research) and broader service to the public, is 40-40-20 the right balance? This is perhaps the bigger question that looms over the multiversity. Those whose views are more closely associated with Newman argue that teaching needs to be a bigger priority. Those who support Flexner will argue that research needs more time. Sorely, there are few arguing in support of the needs of the public within the academy (thought spend anytime listening to discussion of higher education within state legislatures and you’ll hear this point loud and clear).

So, what would be your ideal division of labour (yes, I am Canadian and spell labour with a “u”)? Respond in the comments section.

Set Dress Much?

c/o New York Times

c/o New York Times

You have to appreciate the set dressing that went into Barack Obama’s visit to Parliament Hill today. Centre Block was awash in flags and stage lighting. It did provide some impressive shots. Most notable was the PM/Prez Presser in the Reading Room of Centre Block. In an innovation instituted by the Harper Conservatives, they have used the doorway as the backdrop in an attempt to simulate the better known East Room setting of the White House (notable for the long hallway the President walks towards the podium). This is a 180 vantage point from previous governments that used the west wall – notable for its historic murals – as the backdrop instead.

However, two facts struck me. One, to make this happen, Harper had to lock down the home of Canada’s government. Beyond necessary security measures, Harper had to freeze hallways simply to keep sightlines clear. Secondly, it seemed a little desperate. That every hallway in the Canadian Parliament was adorned with American and Canadian flags was a bit of unnecessary overkill. The truth is that you are hard pressed to find even a Canadian flag in these halls on a common day. A great hew and cry arose when former Speaker of the House Gil Parent ordered a second Canadian flag be paced next to his chair in the House Chamber to offer some symmetry (current Speaker Peter Milliken has reverted to only one flag to his right). Today, there was literally no side view that did not include an American and Canadian flag.  Too much. Too eager. Too obvious.

See full scenes of the day here.

Rick Santelli rages on CNBC

Rick Santelli rages on CNBC

Rick Santelli, CNBC’s Chicago Mercantile Exchange Correspondent, gained new found fame today when he exploded in rage on live television. (Watch it here) His point was this: the US Government Bailout was rewarding bad behaviour. Too many, he felt, purchased beyond their means and failed to properly account for the risk. Now, instead of facing the consequences of their actions, the government is rushing to save people from the problems they themselves created.

He’s right. Absolutely. Positively. 100% correct-a-mundo! But, that misses the point.

During his tirade, he asked surrounding traders, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”

Here’s my response…

Even in the most capitalist economy, no one exists as island onto themselves. We are all made interconnected, and more importantly, interdependent through the marketplace. If my neighbour’s bankruptcy makes him unable to purchase my goods, who is affected? If an over abundance of defaults causes my bank to go belly up, who is affected? If a lack of confidence results in credit being frozen, who is affected?

The fact is this: my neighbour’s bad decisions always affect my life. Now in most cases, so long as it is just my neighbour and a few of his deadbeat friends, I don’t notice. However, when my neighbour’s problems turn into my neighbourhood’s problem, then I feel the affects more sharply.  In today’s economy, we are facing our nation’s problems. As a result, indifference is not an option. We have to step forward and provide immediate relief or we risk getting taken down too.

Our best response, after bailing out our neighbour, is to ensure it never happens again. That means regulation. Too many will suggest that regulation is the slippery slope to socialism. As this experience has shown, the lack of regulation has brought us closer to socialism than we have been since the Great Depression. A free market has shown itself too susceptible to greed to properly regulate itself. It has also shown itself unable (unwilling?) to self-correct until it is already stepping off the precipice.

So I ask Rick Santelli and his trading floor friends this question: “Are you willing to let the government stop a company from lending money to your potential neighbours when they obviously can’t afford the house next to you?” If they had said yes to regulation earlier, there wouldn’t be the need for a bailout now.