Friday, March 04, 2005

I knew an objective journalist once

She was introduced to me by an honest lawyer on a bitterly cold day in Djibouti. It was on the eve of the annual ‘Pork and Liquor’ festival to celebrate Eid-al-Adha, and the locals were shooting down migrating flocks of pigs to barbecue and filling calabashes from the whiskey streams that trickle down the sides of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Young Marco has once again claimed that the Economist is an example of objective journalism, in response to my discovery of a more than usually biased Economist article on the corporatisation of higher education.

I am just going to go through the article and cherry-pick a few unsubstantiated statements that betray an extreme bias against the state-subsidised higher education model:

“The more that universities tailor their offers to foreign students, the more attractive they become.”

All this is saying is that by making themselves more attractive to foreign students, institutions attract more foreign students. Similarly, the more that fast food outlets tailor their products to people’s natural addiction to high-sugar and high-salt food, the more attractive they become. Attractiveness does not equal effectiveness- though in a perfect market with perfect flow of information about the future usefulness of a degree, it would. Australian universities tailoring their offers to fee-paying foreign students is a major factor in reduced course content, grade inflation and increased corruption.

“In Europe and many developing countries, the customer in education for most of the past century has been the government: it wanted the nation's brains educated in the most useful disciplines and in a cost-effective way. Universities may have seen themselves as temples of learning, but the taxpayer was often paying for incense as well as priests and disciples. In short, the system resembled a Soviet-style planned economy.”

Let’s just re-write this statement in an equally objective way:
“In the United States, the customer in education for most of the past century has been the individual student: they want to be educated in the most useful disciplines and in a cost-effective way. Universities may have seen themselves as educational corporations, but the customer was often paying for CEO skiing holidays in St. Moritz as well as supervisors and workers. In short, the system resembled a fly-by-night-Texan-Savings-and-Loan-in-the-1980s-style laissez faire economy.”

“The second big problem is government interference. In many countries, the idea that the state should control higher education is barely challenged.”

Well, the author hasn’t challenged it, either. They have just assumed it is a bad thing.

“So the direction is clear: competition can raise standards for home and foreign students alike, and the speed with which it emerges depends to a large extent on universities' freedom from government.”

Absolutely no data supporting a link between competition and raised standards has been presented.

“That will be strongest where student choice is strongest—ie, courses whose prices are deregulated, for which there is no state-subsidised alternative and whose connection to future earning power is strongest.”

How can the absence of a state-subsidised alternative- i.e., the removal of a choice- make student choice stronger? This is just doublethink jargonese.

“The danger for old-style universities, particularly in Britain and continental Europe, is that government subsidy and control continues at a debilitating level, but is not quite bad enough to be intolerable.”

Where is the evidence that government subsidy and control of old-style universities has been debilitating? Not in this article. On the ground, it has only been debilitating since governments themselves began to adopt this kind of cash-cow attitude to higher education. The best university system in the United States, from the science point of view, is the state system of Schwarzeneggeristan, which produces far more Nobel Laureates than the grade-inflation-plagued big-name private universities of the Cheese-eating Surrender Coast.

“Competition and internationalisation in education have already benefited a wealthy, brainy minority. Plenty more students should gain similarly in future, if only universities are free to fly.”

Should they? How? Surely a market-driven system will charge what the market will bear, and quality education will remain the preserve of a wealthy minority.


Marco said...

Cool! I've started another blog war.

Marco said...

Wait a minute - you started it!