Quizzically Musing

Watching the madness

Education – is it a public good?

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Violent protests … a flare is thrown at police Photo: AP

There are many reports everywhere of the protests in London by people against higher fees for education.  I remember when I started my degree here in Audstralia, tertiary education was still free.  Midway through my degree fees and the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) were brought in.  It is now HECS-HELP.

I remember as a child growing up in New Zealand, students were bonded for a given number of years after completing their degree.   For those unfamiliar with the concept, an example would be a medical student required to work, to use the education, locally for a given number of years, for the country which provided the education for that individual to become a doctor.  Many countries still have bonding.   This is actually my preferred solution to the question of  how much should students themselves contribute to their education. 

I remember attending my economics classes and discussing public goods: what was a public good, what wasn’t.

I am a firm believer that education is something we all benefit from, whether we receive it directly or not.  There is, of course, no question that the individual receiving the education also benefits personally.  There is, therefore, a valid argument that some form of contribution from the individual is appropriate.  Bonding serves that purpose yet still enables those from all socio-economic demographics to further their education.

You are ill, you need a doctor.  Whether you went to university or not, you need medical care.  You need dental care.  The car accident you had last week: you need legal representation.  You go to have a prescription filled, you expect the pharmacist to be adequately qualified. 

Yes, I agree, a degree in macrame perhaps is not so useful to the population at large and some of the “subjects” we read are being offered in American universities simply stuns me.  Perhaps I am merely old-fashioned.  So setting such things aside, for they detract from the central debate, is education a public good?

Here in Australia many students now leave university with a debt to the government.  Thankfully, it is interest free.  Repayments start at an indexed threshold.  Discounts are available for paying extra.

The above newspaper report indicates the UK are proposing quite a hike: The basic level of fees will now climb to £6000 ($9680), with an upper limit of £9000. The current cap is £3290.

Still not as expensive as the USA, but not an inconsiderable cost to a family trying to educate their children.

Every single one of us benefits from education.  Education is something we all need to be provided, whether we, individually, are the recipients or not.

Education must not become something that is only available to the rich.  If it does, such nations will become, over the years, nations no different to those third world countries where education is a luxury, not a right.   Fields of expertise, including science, will stagnate, constrained by lack of fresh ideas, fresh approaches, fresh blood.  All of us will suffer.

Eduction is not a luxury, it is a right.  It is a public good.  It should be available to all those, rich or poor, who have the intellectual ability and the desire to become a doctor, dentist, lawyer, geologist, pharmacist: the list goes on.  We all, every one of us, receive the benefits of education therefore we all should contribute. 

Education must not become available only to the rich.  Our societies will be the worse if such becomes the norm:  look at those countries where it IS the norm to see our possible future.

Edit December 12: Related to this I have been participating in two different discussions about education being compulsory in relation to those students who do not want to be at school at all.  That is a question for another day.  This entry relates only to the question of access to education.

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Written by Robyn Dunphy

December 11, 2010 at 9:37 am

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