Sunday, October 10, 2010

Education 102...

"The modern world has removed all barriers to education; there are no longer the class and craft divisions; there is an almost infinite increase in the complexity and depth of the knowledge required to “survive”.The removal of those barriers has created challenges which are still not resolved; they are not unique to NZ; they are the foundation of this debate; they are the “who gets what, why, and how much” of education in this modern world."

As a first illustration of the complexity of the debate, those challenges can not be simply resolved. What ever approach is taken, the words "Bill of Rights Act" spring immediately to mind.

Very simplistically, as soon as "Bill of Rights" gets injected the answer to the "who" becomes obvious. It has to be "ALL" people have the right to education.

And now I have to confess to one of the probligo's worst kept secrets - I have an issue with that "Right", as it applies to education. The personal issue is largely irrational, and is largely based on ignorance.

When we start considering the "who" of education the balance (in my mind at least) has to pick up the Right on one side and Benefit on the other. I have mentioned several times the family we had living next door whose third son was very severely disabled both physically and mentally. As was his Right, he was mainstreamed at school until his death at the age of 14. There is no question in my mind that the benefit gained would have been minimal., To be honest with myself I must lie alongside of that, the fact that I (at the very least) have no objective measure for the judgement. That personal issue aside, the "who" gets benefit of education has to be universal.

The same approach can be taken to the "...what, why, and how much...". The effect of the Bill of Rights (indirectly) is that all should have - at the very least - access to the same level and standard of education. That right applies (my issue above) to all, irrespective of ability, and prospective and expected benefit. I want to stress that "benefit" in this context is in two parts. There is the personal benefit with the prospect of higher future earnings as reward for the skills attained and applied. There is the benefit to society from having continuing qualified people where required and with skills appropriate to the time.

At that point too we start running into the same qualifications that I applied above; there has to be objective and supportable measures to support judgement of ability and benefit. That is a topic of its own to which I shall return. It will be important at that time to remember these contexts as well as others that arise.

For the moment, the universality of access to education leads to another decision point. There is a second balance that must be met. It is the balance between benefit and cost. The benefit side of that we will meet again as I said in the previous paragraphs. The decision that needs to be made is where the cost of education shifts from society to individual.

As a matter of tradition, that change occurred at the end of secondary education and the start of tertiary education. To state that as a matter of "fact" is somewhat misleading as it has become a bit of a moveable feast. Time was when the social funding of universities was comparatively minimal, with correspondingly high fees. Access to university qualification was by means of personal wealth or scholarship. A second level, "poor mans" tertiary qualification was provided through the technical colleges. They provided a bridge for professional qualifications and advanced technical qualifications. The third level, the trade qualification was provided by employers through bonded apprenticeships, combining on the job training with block courses from the technical colleges.

Summarising those -

  • Degree and professional qualifications - Personally funded, at facilities provided from societal funding.

  • Professional qualifications and advanced trade qualifications - Personally funded and/or employer sponsored, at facilities provided from societal funding.

  • Basic trade qualifications - Training provided by certificated employers at no cost to employee. Bonded employees (hence low wage offset to employer).

In more recent times, the bridge between secondary and tertiary education has been changing particularly in terms of the sharing of the cost between society and individual.

For a time in the 1960's the share was shifted very much in favour of the student, the cost being borne in large part by society. The consequence was the appearance of what became known as "the professional student"; people who attended university for a good number of years emerging eventually with qualifications of little use, or in some notable cases after effective expulsion, none at all.

Societal reaction to that "over funding" resulted in the balance being moved in the opposite direction; increasing the personal liability for funding through increased tuition fees. As this shift progressed, other means of encouraging higher education were sought resulting in the introduction of student loans; the subsequent societal monkeying with the basic premise of "user pays"; further shifts in the balance between personal and social cost; pressure for "living allowances" to counter the loss of traditional seasonal employment for students...

The picture that the reader should be getting by now is of a complex rather than simple model of education provision. That was exactly my intention as many of the perceived problems with education these days are in fact consequences rather than causes.

Illustrating that point is relatively simple.

Society's measure of "potential benefit" has been imposed through testing of scholastic achievement at various stages along the path from fundamentals to eventual qualification. The potential of each individual has been (in theory at least) assessed at three critical points -

  • At the end of primary education. This to ensure that pupils (in theory at least) entering the secondary level had the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, a reasonable level of general knowledge, and the ability to learn.

  • At the end of compulsory education. This is set at age 15, which corresponds (roughly) with the 5th form year. School Certificate was seen to have the fundamental flaw of having half those sitting the examination fail. Actual examination results were scaled in order to achieve this consequence. There was a second failing in the process in that the examination was not compulsory. As a result, a significant number of students were leaving school without any assessment of their ability.

    Those successful in that School Certificate examination "earned the right" to a subsequent year of free secondary education at the end of which came another, similar, examination of attainment; again with the 50% fail cut-off. This time the examination was for University Entrance; success giving a student the right to undertake a university education. At the same level, and after a further year of study there were public scholarships awarded to the highest achievers.

  • The third critical qualification comes at the completion of tertiary education; at whichever level that might have been undertaken.

The other side of "potential benefit", the trade-off, is the expectations of the student. Whether "free" education or expensive, there is the need for the system to provide the quality that should, that must, be expected by the student (or his parents).

The qualification must be valid evidence of knowledge and ability. There must be acceptance of the quality of the qualification when presented to an employer. The validity and applicability of the qualification to employment should - in theory at least - have an impact on the value of that person as an employee. That is the relatively simple mechanism by which the student gains benefit from the endeavour of attaining the qualification.

That, as I see it, is the general cycle of economic benefit that comes from an effective education system.

  • Society provides a basic education to all free and as of right.

  • Society gains the benefit of having people with skills that are appropriate and of value.

  • People with skills and qualifications command a higher price than those without.

That economic cycle is relatively simplistic as it ignores external (to society) pressures and pricing. So if one wishes to add complexity at this level, one can examine the pricing pressures resulting from the usual supply and demand mechanisms for skills and/or qualification. This is evidenced in a wide range of different problems faced within NZ at the moment; the general shortage of junior doctors with incomes in Australia and elsewhere considerably higher than in NZ; the difficulty of persuading those doctors who do remain in NZ to shift out of the major centres (where incomes are higher) into provincial and rural centres; the difficulty of obtaining qualified senior medical staff to provide public health services at a cost acceptable to society. It is not just a case of restricted supply. The barriers are necessarily high. The cost of obtaining suitable qualifications is likewise necessarily high. The return offered from outside is higher than can be sustained internally.

At this point I should not have to specifically point out the underlying over-simplification of Karl du Fresne's rant about the current negotiation of teachers salaries.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the system when a central Auckland college has to advertise a position for six months before getting an applicant. What is even worse is when the only applicant turns out to not have adequate knowledge to provide the level of teaching required. This is not to argue that society should yield totally to the wage demands of teaching unions. What is essential is that society is aware of the connection between the economic returns to graduates and the value of the education that they provide to society.

At the same level, there is something fundamentally wrong with society when a measurable portion of the population can regard education as a waste of time and effort. For this group, holding qualification at any level provides no benefit; employment levels are low to begin with, in some instances unemployment can be as high as 30%; incomes are never far from minimum wage irrespective of qualification; there are proven instances where higher income can be obtained from unemployment benefits than from paid employment. What that indicates more than anything else is that the demand for that occupation or class of employee is swamped by the available supply.

But to return to the topic of teachers after that little wander into the wilderness -

The current qualification requirements for teachers are that they be degree qualified; in the case of secondary teachers two university degrees are of benefit, one in Education and the other in the specialty that person wishes to teach.

The present societal attitudes to graduate qualification - this returns to the balance between public and private funding of university qualifications - has resulted in the situation where all graduates start their working life with a government mortgage on their income. The size of that mortgage varies; the highest are in medicine and dentistry, the lower in commerce and some science disciplines.

If we consider at the same time the difference in return paid in NZ compared with Australia for example - a difference sometimes stated as being in excess of 100% - the obvious and inevitable consequence of the current policies is a goodly number of NZ graduates exporting themselves, leaving behind shortages of well qualified people in critical professional occulations and the accumulated mortgage held by society on their prospective income.

"Lose - lose" as they say.

And remember, as you mull that point over, some of those graduates being exported are well qualified potential teachers that NZ needs in its secondary schools. Their first year's income under NZ teaching scales (for two degrees) would be no more than some $45,000.

I work with senior clerks, no qualifications other than experiance, doing fairly routine office work, with no responsibility for controlling 30 or so unruly teenagers, who are paid as much as that.

All of which takes us full cycle on du Fresnes' rant against teachers and the negotiation of their payscales.

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