Friday, June 10, 2011

I Attended A Quiet, Nerdy Lecture

and this happened.

Yeah. Protesters. They were upset about AC Grayling's proposed new school, a frou-frou private humanities college that would cost £18,000 a year and offer intensive scholarship to a rather specific student body. Richard Dawkins has agreed to do a few lectures a year there in science, and has made it clear that all of the money he receives for doing them will go to charity. The students don't like the idea of a new private, expensive school in the UK and want Dawkins to refuse to be a part of it on ethical grounds (e.g. the school is too expensive and takes the "best teachers" away from the public schools because it will pay them more.)

The protest lasted about forty-five minutes (the entire duration of which was spent with the audience hurling abuse at them and telling them to sod off), until the back-up police officers arrived, filed in, and escorted them out quietly. The lecture hall was completely packed--about 1,000 asses in seats--and maybe up to four attendees had any sympathy for their concern. The proposed university certainly wasn't the point of the talk or the reason why any of us had shown up. We'd come to hear a bit of give-and-take, perhaps some dorky science jokes from two of our favourite atheists.

In all honesty I got the impression that the whole point of the talk was to give PZ Myers an opportunity to say hi to some of his London readers, and maybe even have a drink with some of us. As it was the police made a point of shunting us and the professors out of the building as quickly as possible so as to avoid any other ugly encounters that they'd then have to deal with. I can't say I blame them, but it was a shame that the asshat brigade prevented what might have been a nice reception.

See, I have absolutely zero sympathy for these kids. Righteous as their anger must undoubtedly feel to them, I grew up in the USA where higher education is considered neither right nor privilege, but investment. A degree represents an investment of time, effort, and money in your personal future. The state does help students pay for it--not with giveaways, typically, but with low-interest loans and scholarships for the best students. This scholarship system may be considered a sort of sliding scale: the degree itself may be achieved either through more effort or more payment, within certain constraints. If the student consistently earns Cs she can still graduate with money, but if she earns As she can pay for it with merit.

This system worked for me: I earned damn fine grades throughout my undergraduate career and left school with only the debt I accrued through housing costs. The state of South Carolina paid my tuition all four years, and USC gave me a pat on the head in the form of the three words Magna, Cum *hehe* and Laude after my qualification. I'm so clever they had to tell me in Latin.

A lot of students started on this, the LIFE scholarship. It's quite simple, really--in the state of South Carolina, if you graduate high school with at least a B average and at least 1100 on your SATs, if you go to a SC university the state will cover your tuition costs, no matter what you study. In order to keep receiving this every semester all you have to do is remain in full-time study and maintain a B (3.0) average. You can even get LIFE if you didn't meet these criteria at the end of high school, but do well in your first few terms of uni. Sadly, though, most students who start on a LIFE lose it for one reason or another. Either their grades slip, or they drop down to part-time, or they transfer out of state, or they get in too much trouble (I think there's something about not getting convicted of felonies) or a variety of other things happen that cause them to not get funded. The state sees them as a failed investment and withdraws, which gives them a choice: either invest in themselves, or do something else.

Beyond this, nearly 40% of all students who start university drop out after two years--a fact that course designers actually depend on, but a huge pain in the ass in every other respect. Yes, third and fourth year modules benefit from small class sizes and intimate, direct discussion and tuition with teachers, but at what cost? The system has to filter through and crush the dreams of thousands of hopefuls every semester.

But let's look at this from a financial standpoint--unless you quit before you start, if you quit after a term you're left with money spent for nothing. Now, if the "state" pays for most of it, then you're only accountable for at most £4,500 per term that you kept it up. As an individual, that's not so bad. But think for a second--40% of all students drop out. That means the big nebulous "state" is accountable for the remainder of the actual cost of failing to educate all of you--a far greater amount per student than what you pay. Now who is that state? Oh right, it's your friends and neighbours. Y'know, me. We have footed the bulk of the cost so you could fart around and do nothing for a couple of years before giving up and moving back in with your mummy. Thanks for nothing. Excuse me, thanks for less than nothing. Thanks for thieving. That's right. We've given universities millions of pounds so you can come out exactly as employable as if you hadn't gone at all.

Yeah, I actually do want you to get something out of your education--a job. I'm depending on you getting a job. We all are. That's what society is built on. We all chip in--for roads, for schools, for hospitals, for common defence--and we all need jobs in order to do our bit. It is in the best interest of the government And the people for me to have a decent-paying job, because it means I can pay my taxes. I can provide my share of the responsibility of keeping my country running.

(And yes, it's even better for the UK for me to have a job, despite the fact that I can't claim unemployment benefits. Even if I'm not mooching off the state, if I'm not earning money I'm not putting anything into it either.)

Say what you want about reasonable taxation, it's there for a reason. It's not going away. Unless you want to form your own militias and let private companies run the trains for maximum profit, you're going to need to ensure that you have a solid government that is trying to represent the interests of the majority of people in your nation.

So the UK accepts that 40% of all people who start uni aren't going to graduate. That's 40% of the money they have chosen to invest in your future that they're counting on going to waste. That's stupid.

A better system is one that recognizes an investment in the students who are most likely to succeed. A system that rewards high grade earners and diligent attenders by lifting the financial burden from them, and encourages people who don't actually want to work hard for an education to get into a more appropriate field quickly. A system wherein individuals earn investment in their potential by proving that they have it.

In South Carolina I made a number of my fellow students unhappy with this assertion--that is, that I supported the financial arrangements I had signed up for by going to a local school. "I lost my scholarship, so now I have to work to pay for school, which interferes in my ability to go to school and study, so my grades have suffered even more" is a big one. And a huge f'ing crock. No. You don't have to. If you actually gave a crap about the education itself, if you didn't have the grades to start with or lost the good ones you had, you could take out a student loan. If you'd rather work for money than study, that's your own concern, but don't make it out like the state ought to keep paying for you to not attend school. The state has a responsibility to promote the general welfare of the people as effectively as it can. Your empty chair in the Economics 201 room is not counted as "people".

What loans and merit-based scholarships do is create not a two-tiered finance-based system, but a multi-tiered interest-based system. For kids who want to learn and are willing to put in the effort, the state supports that education. For the huge numbers of people who don't want to spend more time in a classroom learning abstract ideas and debating philosophy, there are opportunities to learn skills for a lower cost (both in terms of money and time) that can help you find good employment. For people who seek neither education nor skills, there are jobs available sweeping floors and digging ditches. Some people like that. Who am I to argue?

My point is you do not have a right to higher education. Your state has given itself an obligation to ensure that the most capable individuals can get into careers that on some level benefit everyone--even if the only benefit it provides is a taxable salary. If you can pay tax and save lives, so much the better. Get off your damn high horse of middle class entitlement for a second and recognize that it's not all about you, and never was. Your state has been foolishly squandering money on you for years, and they've learned their mistake. The majority of people do not need higher education--they need stable jobs. Most jobs don't actually require a BA-level education to be performed well, but a BA has become the benchmark of competence thanks to you pushing higher education on everyone. Thanks to your "education is a right" bollocks, kiddos, your education has become valueless.

If you want someone to be upset at, don't wave your hands around at academics who want to set up their own private schools. They're not the problem--they're just a symptom. The real problem is that the MA has become the new BA, and the BA has become the new high school diploma, but people still give credence to the idea that the universe was built on purpose in a week by a bearded humanoid who loves them.

You show me nation full of university graduates and I'll show you a nation with a higher ceiling.

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