Do we need free higher education?
The discussion that paying for higher education will give it both the missing prestige and the quality largely lost in society comes up periodically. At the same time, the training course for labor trades is being done slowly but surely in Russia: technical schools and colleges are becoming the resource centers of large industrial companies. The question arises: is universal and free higher education really necessary? Maybe we need it like in America? Anna Svirina, vice-rector for science and development at TISBI University of Management, reflects on this in its author’s column for Realnoe Vremya.
Eyes on the Anglo-Saxons?
The start of the academic year always starts a conversation that “universities have again recruited future certified waiters, business advisers and taxi drivers”, memes like “I really need my degree – open beer with “and videos on how students with red degrees can’t multiply 10 by 10 are enabled.
And the proposal is stronger: we are already paying for higher education, so people without skills will not go for diplomas. And gifted children will apply for scholarships, just like in the United States, and make their own way – and they will appreciate their education too, because the scholarship has not been easy for them.
The Anglo-Saxon approach to higher education, when it is not free for anyone (we pay either with money or with bonds), seems to be a model of common sense, and his country gives to the world more Nobel Prizes than any other. So is it worth adopting it?
Insight 1. Not all “paid college students” want to learn.
The idea that the payment will change attitudes towards the value of higher education seems so obvious that even after 20 years of working in education, I find it hard to believe it doesn’t work. But it’s not like that. And this must be recognized.
Paid students have been studying at Russian universities for a long time, and the percentage of those who really study and those who do not study at all is exactly the same among them as among their colleagues who occupy state-funded places. About 20% of students come for knowledge and ask the teacher for a return on the full amount of the remuneration, 70% sometimes study, and sometimes not. And the reasons that motivate the remaining 10% to pay to university for several years in a row are not clear, it seems, neither for them nor for the university.
And this ratio is not only in Russia. Harvard and Stanford professors complain as much about demotivated students and incompetent foreigners as they do about Kazan associate professors.
Insight 2. Not everyone pays on their own
Regarding tuition fees, we believe a priori that a state-funded student does not study at his own expense, and the payer will value education more because he pays for it himself (or wins a scholarship, or receives the support of a future employer, that is, finding funds for payment requires efforts on his part).
But this is not true for everyone – in Russia, in the vast majority of cases, parents decide everything for the future student, who then pays for his studies. Parents of the payer often think that it is better to pay directly to the university, not to the guardians to prepare the child for the unified state exam, and the parents of the “state funded” student – that it is better to invest in in-school training and study at university for free.
In both cases, no one asks the question to the student himself in the vast majority of cases. The money is not his and it is not for him to decide. And this very often results in a ‘third year syndrome’ when, after half the training, the student realizes that he was wrong at all – but at the same time, those who pay him want let him finish. his studies. Thus, the value of such education for its “victim” again remains in doubt.
Insight 3. The price-quality dilemma.
From an economic standpoint, price should reflect quality – and education is no exception. We are willing to pay more for a quality education (and we are far from the records in terms of cost, in some Asian countries entire family clans are going into debt to learn a parent). But how do you measure the quality of education?
Instant employment? It doesn’t work – for example, vacancies for doctors are still open, but is it attractive for a payer after medical college to go to work at rates of 1.5 for less money than that? that he paid for his studies? And the labor market tends to change significantly, and during the baccalaureate it can change beyond recognition – even the profession itself, which the student has mastered, can disappear.
Under such conditions, the price ceases to be a reflection of the quality but only characterizes the prestige of the teaching and the expectations of how much this or that profession will be in demand in 4 years. You can’t guess. Plus, learning is a two-way street, and you can only teach someone who wants to learn. The others receive a document certifying that they are able to go through a difficult path with a positive result in 4 years – but the result does not necessarily represent a mastered trade. Sometimes it is even the opposite – in 4 years, the student realizes that he has only mastered the trade that he does not need.
So what will be the sacred benefit of paying for higher education here? A person can understand that they have come to the wrong place, whether their training is free or not.
Insight 4. Talented kids DON’T ALWAYS go their way with the help of grants.
Global experience clearly says this is a utopia. The best-known study on inequality is by Piketty (published in 2014) and shows that economic inequality around the world is only increasing every year (as is the average standard of living though).
Education is one of the main drivers of inequality. Is it likely that a student whose PE teacher was teaching physics and chemistry in a dilapidated village school, because there was no one else to do it, was so talented that he will take courses on YouTube himself? Or that a teenager from a marginal family will find the opportunity to apply for a scholarship and be able to complete a file without outside help?
Let’s be realistic. Children are much more likely to return to their parents’ path. There are happy exceptions, but they are not part of the system. The social lift on subsidies works very badly even in the West.
Insight 5. Paid training at EdTech is not a panacea either.
In recent years, vocational training has become very popular not in traditional universities, but on online platforms (often offered by these very traditional universities). Looks like what’s the difficulty here? You pay for a class at a Stanford – and stay home, study. But it is not that simple.
The share of those who do not complete paid EdTech courses is much higher than the share of servers with red degrees. In the first years of Coursera’s life, when only motivated students studied there, the share of those who completed a course was 4%; in one year it was increased to 7%, which was a huge success. Offline universities are more efficient: around 20% of their graduates are fully prepared for their future profession (and sometimes they even succeed within the walls of the university).
The question of whether higher education should be paid for, in reality, is not a question of money. This is a question about the value of four years of young people’s lives for their future. And if this value is not obvious, and if the degree obtained is not always associated with future success, we will continue to discuss: is it worth going to university? And do I have to pay for it?