Saturday, March 05, 2005

At home among the Dinkas

Quoth Marco: "I think you are in denial about knowledge. Whether it is public or private, people who teach and research need to be paid. Knowledge can be used to gain market advantage in industry, hence earn money. In these ways, knowledge has a certain convertibility hence value (intrinsically). Admittedly, there are non-convertible kinds of knowledge worth learning, but that may well be funded by curious rich people as well. Whether the government pays for higher education through taxes, or students pay for it directly is immaterial - it is still a market. Students paying the universities directly is just cutting out the middleman of the government. The government could then concentrate the money saved on scholarships for the clever poor."

I am admittedly biased, in that I believe truth and beauty are the ends of civilisation and society, not means to anything. Due to my brief and cryptic blogging style, I seem to have conflated a number of different issues related to research and education which are therefore all mixed up in Marco's reply to me.

First of all, our original discussion was about higher education and people paying to learn stuff. Basically, I have no inherent objection to people paying for university degrees- whether the university is a public institution ultimately accountable to their fellow citizens or a private institution ultimately accountable to the House of Sa'ud, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a consortium of Japanese pension funds seeking safe offshore investments, or whatever- so long as there are plentiful shcolarships for clever poor folks. To drag irrelevant personal material into the argument, my father went through university on a scholarship from General Motors.
Until relatively recently (until about the same time I underwent a 180 degree switch on the Israel/Palestine thing, oddly enough)I used to openly mock the whole 'education should be free' rants of the Union idealogues. Education was already free, I said: anyone off the street could walk into any university library in the country and stuff themselves with knowledge until their ears bled. What was not free,and what should not be free, was qualifications: people who had a University degree in Aromatherapy from Mark Phillopousis University (formerly the West Wyalong College of Hairdressing) would obviously earn more than their unqualified brethren, so why shouldn't they pay for the privilege? But I realised: skilled workers are also a public good. As constituents, we should try to select the best candidates to fill professional positions in our society, regardless of whether they can pay. I think a sensible constituent-accountable govenrment body would do a better job of predicting our future requirements than a bunch of 17 year-olds who think maths is too hard taking wild stabs in the dark about what the future employment market will be like.

I read sometime around 1997 in New Scientist an analysis by a fellow who demonstrated that the main benefit of industrial research to the companies that produced it was that it meant they had trained people on board who could understand the research that everybody else was doing, and that they became more profitable by being able to quickly apply the results of other people's results. While this was part of an overall argument that government should not fund research at all... I forget the details... I think it is good evidence that absolute free trade in ideas will lead to the most rapid economic growth. Obviously I was going over the top in saying that the notion of intellectual property should be eliminated root and branch, but it properly belongs to the applied end of research, not the basic end.

Okay, I've remembered some of the argument, which is quite consistent with my experience: if government funds research that industry would do anyways, industry gets out of doing research and lets government do it. The result is that fewer options are available for skilled graduates, and because government is less in touch with the market, its spending is less efficient, and the overall result is negative. 'Market-driven' university and CSIRO research is just an expensive way of subsidising Australian industry and making it fat and slow and lazy.

I believe research should be funded according to a paradigm something like this:

Basic research: Publicly-funded research institutes and universities.
Strategic Basic research: Collaborations on an industry level, funded by contributions from a particular industry, that openly disseminate their results throughout the industry.
Applied research: Individual companies, with traditional intellectual property protection.

1 comment:

Marco said...

You mention that in a private situation, 17 year olds would get to choose which courses to do, but a free market is more experimental and adaptable, and price signals for various courses of study would tend to (in the long term) counteract the excesses of the corporate culture of America's system. Also, if governments move out of the market for even basic research, large private universities would fill the vacuum and (eventually) offer the basic research results for free dissemination. I'm talking centuries here, but if the analogy for other "commodities" is any guide, there is nothing to be afraid of with American style higher education.