Category Archives: education

a free lunch

A friend of mine defended his PhD at the University of Toronto today. As he was sitting outside the examination room while the committee deliberated, he noticed another candidate waiting to start her defense. Her supervisor came out of one of the rooms and told her they would begin shortly. Then he said, “Before we start I need you to get me and the rest of the committee some sandwiches for lunch.” My friend, first thinking this was a joke but quickly¬†realizing it wasn’t, was dumbfounded. The poor woman gathered her notes up, zipped up her backpack and wandered off to find this guy his tunafish on rye. Unbelievable.¬†


day of action

Today is the “Day of Action” for students in Canada. University students will organize marches and rallies calling for lower tuition fees, frozen tuition fees and/or the abolition of tuition fees. The debate–as far as it exists–about tuition fees and funding of universities is infused with an unsettling combination of sanctimoniousness and economic illiteracy. I can think of at least 3 arguments against low tuition fees:

1. Low tuition fees are not progressive.
Students (and most faculty I know) argue that post-secondary education carries with it benefits for society at large. As such, it should be funded by taxpayer money and individuals ought not to have to pay very much, if at all, for their education. But these people conveniently ignore the private benefits that flow to those who have a university degree. All those “progressive” students and faculty marching around today should ask themselves how progressive it is that the person who cleans the toilets in their university subsidizes an education which will lead to a relatively high salary.

2. Money doesn’t grow on trees (nor do microscopes, books, classrooms, professors or much else besides fruit).
In Quebec, tuition fees have been frozen at 1994 levels. Think about this for a moment before you decide to ditch Econ 101, grab a fair-trade soy latte and join the march. What else costs the same today as it did thirteen years ago? Lab equipment? Your professors’ salaries? Electricity? Anything? So while a large proportion of Quebec universities’ revenue has actually shrunk, all of their costs have continued to increase. Students in Quebec argue that the tuition freeze has not led to a decrease in quality. The obvious rejoinder to this is that holding that view is all the evidence we need to the contrary.

3. Lower tuition fees do not increase access.
The tuition freeze in Quebec, for example, has not increased the number of students from underprivileged backgrounds who go on to university. Not only have lower tuition fees not increased the number of low-income students, in fact Quebec has some of the lowest overall post-secondary participation rates in Canada. Furthermore, as a result of cutting an important revenue stream for universities, lowering tuition fees leads to a decrease in the number of places a university can afford to offer.

So what’s the alternative? I would guess that the vast majority of those taking “action” today assume that the alternative to no tuition fees is “American style” very high tuition fees. The result being that low-income people will almost certainly be left out. But that’s of course nonsense. One of the features of the current system (and even more so, one of lower tuition fees) is that it helps precisely those people who do not need the help. Namely kids from middle class families who can afford to send them to university anyway. It is these families who get the benefits of low tuition fees because they are more likely to send their children to university. The alternative, instead, is some form of variable tuition fees that takes account of students’ ability to pay (effectively argued for by Nicholas Barr, who serves the mixed grill). However, tuition fees should vary, not depending on a student’s family income (i.e. ability to pay while a student), but rather on the student’s salary upon graduation. Such a system helps underprivileged students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend, while at the same time recognizing that post-secondary education can–and often does–result in significant economic advantage. Yes, education benefits society, but it is disingenuous to brush aside the private benefits. Concretely, it would mean raising tuition fees significantly from their current levels–for illustration, let’s say doubling them. But no one would pay anything during their university education; everyone would be entitled to a financial package covering the tuition. Part of the cost of this is covered by taxation and part by income contingent repayments. These payments are like a tax, but with the important difference that they are paid for only by those who actually went to university and benefited economically and the payments don’t continue forever.

If the students, faculty and politicians are really concerned about fairness and quality they shouldn’t argue for a system that leads to the opposite.

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an aside

A commenter over at Bergh points out an interesting feature of Nick Bostrom’s cv: he lists financial support from CSN under ‘honours and grants.’ CSN is the Swedish national student aid authority. Generally, students are supported with a combination of loans and grants. These grants are means tested, not based on merit; if you get a loan, you get a grant. In other words, it’s not exactly a feather in one’s cap to be supported by CSN.

OK, so he has this on his cv. No real harm done. But it is fascinating that someone who also has three seven-figure grants, publications in places like Nature, Ethics and the Journal of Philosophy, books at OUP, not to mention being the director of an Oxford Institute, feels compelled to pad his cv such. Still, at least he probably knows the difference between a letter to the editor, an op-ed and an article. Unlike some prominent Swedish ‘producers of ideas.’

Update: the link is now fixed.

mind the gap… in sensibilities

How much is explained by IQ? I suppose making arguments about the importance of IQ in explanations of economic growth, longevity and so on is about as controversial as research gets. Anyone brave enough to tread into this minefield is sure to be hit from all sides. Bryan Caplan is of the opinion that IQ matters for all kinds of things and that to ignore it in, say, a model of the effect of education on earnings will mean overestimating the effect of schooling.

Thus, IQ is highly policy-relevant after all. The left-wing ideologues who damn anyone who even thinks the letters “IQ” are actually on to something: IQ research does turn out to be a rationale for “right-wing” laissez-faire policies. The more IQ matters, the more likely it becomes that existing government policies are a waste of money – and that you would get a bigger payoff by doing less – or maybe nothing at all.

This is controversial enough for many people. Now add race (implicitly, if not explicitly) to the mix. Speaking of mix, another one who has partaken of the mixed grill, Satoshi Kanazawa, has a paper in the current issue of the British Journal of Health Psychology that is sure to stir the pot. Here’s the abstract:

Wilkinson contends that economic inequality reduces the health and life expectancy of the whole population but his argument does not make sense within its own evolutionary framework. Recent evolutionary psychological theory suggests that the human brain, adapted to the ancestral environment, has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment and that general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems. Since most dangers to health in the contemporary society are evolutionarily novel, it follows that more intelligent individuals are better able to recognize and deal with such dangers and live longer. Consistent with the theory, the macro-level analyses show that income inequality and economic development have no effect on life expectancy at birth, infant mortality and age-specific mortality net of average intelligence quotient (IQ) in 126 countries. They also show that an average IQ has a very large and significant effect on population health but not in the evolutionarily familiar sub-Saharan Africa. At the micro level, the General Social Survey data show that, while both income and intelligence have independent positive effects on self-reported health, intelligence has a stronger effect than income. The data collectively suggest that individuals in wealthier and more egalitarian societies live longer and stay healthier, not because they are wealthier or more egalitarian but because they are more intelligent.

I haven’t read the paper so I can’t really comment on the data or analysis. No one can accuse him of studying boring stuff though.