30 September 2011

Education is not a zero sum game

Reports this week about the value of a university education have led to much debate over the purpose of education: is it to enrich people through knowledge or simply prepare people for the world of work?

The Globe reported on Monday that "University education no guarantee of earnings success", and examined the payoff for people entering undergraduate education. Academica's Ken Steele says in the report that options such as college and apprenticeship programs should be explored. Patrick Keeney, in a column in the National Post back in August laments the turning of education into vocational training. Keeney in particular decries the "hollowing out" of education as our society seeks an emphasis on results and returns on investment. While a laudable goal to provide a liberal education for its own sake to a population, Keeney overlooks the history of university education as a purview of the elite. We know that education leads to a more productive and inclusive society, hence a world-wide desire to increase education attainment at all levels. Emphasizing outcomes at all educational levels does not cheapen education, but rather increases its value to a society. Failure to see this represents a failure of the imagination and an atavism for a past elitism.

I've written here before on Canada's number one ranking in the OECD for tertiary education. It bears repeating: this is only when you include both college and university. Given the fact that many students come to college with university degrees already in hand (up to 25% at George Brown College), these data are somewhat skewed. Nevertheless, the real story here is that education is both useful (knowledge gains for its own sake) and usable (instrumental to a country's social and economic productivity).

Instrumentality and outcomes based learning are applicable to research. There is no zero sum with university teaching and research, as pointed out today in an opinion by Stephen Saideman. The same is true of education. I've quoted this here before: as John Godfrey, head of the Toronto French School has said, "The goal of education is to make people privately happy and publicly useful."

The sooner Canada gets past thinking about education and research (basic and applied) as an either-or proposition, and start seeing complementary as a worthwhile goal, then the sooner we can work on fixing our long standing productivity problem. Making informed decisions about public policy and spending linked to outcomes where appropriate is necessary in a country with a GDP the size of Canada. We must choose where to invest in research, and to support the entire spectrum of basic and applied research through to market entry, because doing so provides balance and a hedge on the future that leverages our talent pool. The same is true for education where we produce this talent pool. We owe it to ourselves and to those who want an education and a job or career to enable everyone to take their place in advancing knowledge and in finding full participation in our society. Not doing so risks impoverishment of the mind and society as a whole.

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