Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Symbolic Strike Proves Bad Math Skills

I have opined before (here, here) about the demand for tuition freezes or cuts in Quebec (and in Canada) so why revisit this discussion?  Because the students are going to strike on Thursday across Canada to protest tuition increases. Yep, they pay an incredibly low price for a university education up here, but want it to be free.  Why?  Because their parents do not contribute as much and because they have idealized views about how Europe operates, I guess. 

Let me note just a few contradictions:
  • The student organizations at McGill have lined up to support the staff who are out on strike.  These folks are seeking higher wages.  Where would that money come from?  In the past, the undergrad groups have supported the TAs when they have struck (which they are threatening to do again).  Again, where does the money come from to pay for raises for folks who work at universities?
  • The student organizations gripe about corporate donations, so where do they expect the money to come from?
  • The students like to talk about social justice, but low tuition is actually quite regressive.  Universities that charge more can then relieve the burden for the folks who are less well off.   The real price of an average American higher education is much lower than the sticker price.
  • The students should be griping about large classes.  Perhaps not the large intro classes, but they certainly should mind taking 80 person classes as seniors.  I hardly ever learn the names of students here because I am rarely in a classroom with less than 80 undergrads.  So, perhaps they would want to hire more profs and keep those who might leave.  But, alas, professors are greedy folks.  One of the reasons I am leaving McGill (not the only reason nor the most important) is for more money elsewhere.  And I will probably not be replaced immediately, as it saves McG money to keep the position open for a year or two.  Who is going to teach the monster intro to IR class next year? 
  • I have noted before that the students seem to be acting against their self-interests (of course, their organizations/unions have interests that are separate from their members).  If the quality of the education goes down due to funding constraints (libraries cut back, staff is reduced, student/faculty ratios increase, professors flee for money elsewhere), that will not hurt this generation because it happens later, after they are gone.  But so do the tuition cuts.  The key is that a degree varies in value over time, which is why folks are so obsessed about rankings.  The more value a degree has due to the reputation of its school, the better a person's life chances--employment, promotions, etc.  But the challenge is that it is a global market of education.  If Canada freezes tuition and suffers accordingly, degrees from elsewhere will gain in relative value.  I don't always think globalization exists (hard to get my car into Canada when I moved here), but, in this case, it is quite true that profs will move to where they can get paid better and have better working conditions.  The most competitive students can do that, too.  
  • The students have asked the profs to strike in sympathy with them.  Sorry, but nay.  My self-interest is squarely aimed at reasonable tuition increases over the long run.  I do think that provinces/states/federal governments should realize that universities are better multipliers than pretty much everything else.  But that would require a medium term vision.
  • The students seem to think that governments will respond by kicking in more money for universities despite the trend being very much in the other direction.  Student activists argue: "I think it will be hard for the government not to pay attention."  Guess again.  The problem is that students tend not to vote despite having these ideals, and old folks tend to vote a lot and narrowly along their self-interests.  Older voters are focused on maintaining social programs for themselves (and no one else) and on keeping taxes low.  So, the students should be blaming their grandparents for voting wrong, and their parents for not helping to fund their education.

    My colleague, Jacob Levy tweeted: "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly." Thomas Paine.  Indeed.


Unknown said...

A few responses, from a recent McGill alum (who took POLI 244 in Fall 2007):
1. I agree with you about large classes. And hiring of professors.
2. Free tuition, in itself, is not necessarily the system I'd like to see. I'd rather have a system in which tuition is calculated in proportion to your ability to pay, including negative tuition (in the form of stipends/grants/what-have-you...but not loans) for people from low-income households to cover the opportunity costs of postsecondary education. Another way to do this, though, would be to just have free tuition, grants for students from low SES backgrounds, and much higher taxes on the well-off.
3. The sticker price may be psychologically relevant. If you're thinking of being the first person in your family to go to university, or if you come from a low SES community, you may not be aware of how much financial aid you can get. Since universities don't always make it clear how much financial aid you're likely to get but do publicize their tuition rates, that can give people an impression that it's financially out of reach.
4. A lot of the people within student organizations recognize that the biggest problem is not necessarily tuition but under-funding of universities. Tuition increases by themselves don't do very much to correct for underfunding, given how much of universities' revenue comes from other sources, and governments can use tuition increases as an excuse to avoid increasing funding for universities in their budgets. And most of them would agree that there needs to be a bigger push for government funding. CKUT had an hour long special on this a few weeks ago, interviewing a panel of people from a variety of different student organizations at different universities and CEGEPs, along with some of the umbrella student organizations in the province. (University administrators didn't respond to invitations.) The consensus seemed to be that there was a need to address under-funding, rather than simply tuition.
4. I'd be interested to see if the student movement were more successful if it focused on trying to get various governments to increase funding. This certainly seems to be in the interests of students, researchers, and faculty.
5. I'm not sure the turnout issues with young people necessarily apply to students. People under 30 with university degrees have high turnout rates (around the turnout levels in the general population), and people under 30 who have a HS diploma or less have incredibly low turnout rates. But I haven't seen anything that addresses students per se. Lots of news stories talk about this issue, but it's usually referring to data that examines youth as a whole, rather than students, which is conflating two concepts that should definitely be distinct.

Anonymous said...

This strike is a whopper of an own-goal for students because it confirms the non-student's biases: Students are partying away at school while others are earning the money to pay for the party. Rent-seeking behavior, in a way.

Anonymous said...

Professor Saideman,

Would you like students, often the driving force behind social change, to give up our optimism?

Yes, we (well many of us) want free tuition. We also want gender, class, and racial equality across the globe. In short, we want it all for all people.

Are our demands possible? Perhaps not on a balance sheet and not in our current political climate. Which is why we are trying to change the politics, one rally at a time.

So while I fully acknowledge the implausibility in terms of cost-cutting while spending more, I will march side-by-side with tens of thousands of other students tomorrow calling for much broader change in our world. And so should you-- and together, our message may reverberate around Montreal-->Quebec-->Canada-->the World and I will not give up that optimism!

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the points made. However, those of us American students cannot vote in Canada so that point is invalid. Also, international students still have to pay a large amount of money and just because the tuition itself is lower doesn't mean McGill won't get you with loads of other fees.

Majd said...

Sad to hear you're leaving, Professor.

I agree with most of what you said. Except, perhaps, for the last point. The biggest problem isn't that students don't vote, but the fact that many of them (if not most) are full of idealism but not enough logic to realize that what they're vouching for is not in their long term interests.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your arguments. Many students at McGill like to take a completely idealistic, anti-administration worldview that offers few real solutions to issues like tuition increases. While it's true that many European countries offer post-secondary education for practically free, these European countries are advanced welfare states with social values and histories not quite comparable to those of Canada.

When you compare to the United States or UK, Canadian students are getting a pretty good deal for their education. Even as a McGill out of province student on student loans, I am completely comfortable with these tuition increases, especially if it allows McGill to continue with the level of education it has given me so far.

Anonymous said...

Haha, poor little neo-cons blaming their nonni for the world today. The question is, which side will you be on? Radicals or defenders? Fearful men in suits or fearful kids in hipster glasses? Sorry Mr Money that you can't remember 80 names, life is so hard. Quit going to school if you can't afford, education ain't fo errybody, g

Steve Saideman said...

Just a few responses to these comments:
to anonymous #3: I want the students to be optimistic and fight for stuff. I just don't think free tuition is the right fight. Ask the Europeans how the "free" model is working, which involves, by the way, significantly fewer folks going to university since there is rationing. Getting a higher education for free or cheap do not compare, in mind, to the other issues you raise--equality of gender, race, sexuality and all the rest.

Anonynmous #4: More fees because McGill cannot charge more tuition. I doubt that McGill would cut fees if they could raise tuition, but McGill would not be compelled to be deceptive in that way.

Anonymous #6: Huh?

Anonymous said...

Dear Pr Saideman.
I also took your class - and liked it :)
I personally don't want free tuition. I'm from France, where tuition is free, and it don't think its a good model. However, there is no "rationing" - everyone who finishes high school can go to university. Unfortunately, it means university isn't that great, except for private schools and a few elites programs.

I'm not even against tuition increases. I'm simply concerned that these tuition increase will not result in any substance increase of the quality of our education. A lot of studies suggest the contrary. I'd be happy to pay more if it would result in smaller classes, more resources, etc, not just inflated salaries for administrators.

I think there is a lot more debate about this than you seem to think, even amongst students. A lot of us aren't just blindly idealistic, but we do we feel we are getting the short end of the stick here.

I was sorry to hear you are leaving.

Anonymous said...

Tuition increases are a good thing - in an ideal world. Frankly, I don't trust McGill w/ my international student tuition as is. I pay more than anyone else, and what I get is simply not worth it. I came to McGill for psychology (arts), which I was told had an excellent reputation. I've since switched to history, keeping psych as a minor. The classes are enormous, the professors beyond apathetic/aloof, and exams are highly arbitrary. I am not against paying more for a better education, but I don't believe that any amount will ever make McGill a first-class university. Administration's priority simply is not undergraduates. I only wish McGill didn't have such a good reputation - it sure as hell isn't the "Harvard of Canada" or #11 if you're an undergrad.

Anonymous said...

I'm an undergraduate PoliSci student.

In principle, I agree with the overall thrust of your comments, and I personally do not intend to strike on Thursday. However, I think there are a few objectionable points:

1. I agree that there is something reactionary and unfair in many students' view of these various issues. After all, ends must meet. However, it is a good thing that students sometimes take positions against their own interests! McGill students' perspectives usually are imbalanced, but it seems wrong to criticize them simply for having empathy and integrity.

2. Relatively low wages for McGill's non-academic workers are in students' interests only because it's an employer's market, and the workers' quality is relatively unimportant to student interests. TAs are different: if you pay them too little to support their graduate studies, the quality of graduate students will drop as the best of the graduate students go elsewhere, which in turn will significantly decrease the quality and prestige of a McGill education. You made essentially the same argument about professors; it applies to TAs, too.

3. Tuition increases admittedly matter little to most current McGill students. However, from a social justice perspective, I disagree that higher tuition is better. Remember, both governmental and school-level programs already exist to allow students from empoverished families to attend McGill. Raising the base tuition makes most students more and more dependent on their parents' willingness to pay out large portions of their savings. There is nothing just about that situation — it incurs an unfair expense on generous parents and eliminates opportunities (or creates debt) for students whose parents are less generous. There is a reason that so many American students come to McGill, and it isn't Quebec's drinking age.

4. As another poster noted earlier, students do vote at a reasonably high rate. Short of disenfranchisement, I don't see any plausible way to overcome the greed of elderly voters other than (metaphorically) shouting louder.

Cathal said...

Professor Saideman, I think you'll appreciate this quote from one of the Grantland writers, used to begin an article about Harold & Kumar of all subjects:

"The great challenge of living in a pluralistic society is figuring out an equilibrium: Is it possible to recognize our various differences while pursuing a future of collective aspirations, desires, and possibilities? How might we acknowledge diversity without allowing its mere fact to divide us?"

This, I think of all things, is the biggest failure of McGill's student politicians - they would rather go down fighting for their unique beliefs than come to the middle.

I think one of the strongest points is that there is nothing unfair or unjust about paying for something for which you are fully capable of paying (especially something with such a high ROI), which is why the blanket policy of "free tuition for all" has no more virtue to it than a progressive model that directly helps the individuals that need it.

Proponents of the "free tuition" will bring up the fact that education is a right - this is not untrue, but what connection is there to something that is free and something that is a right? We all have the right to sit wherever we like on the bus, but this by no means we all get a free bus ride. Welfare, food stamps, financial aid - ideal mechanisms for helping people in need, but unnecessary and impractical for those fully capable of paying for something themselves.

I've come to think that there is this cultural norm in Quebec in which fully capable parents don't take the necessary efforts to save money for university, something that - even after tuition increases - really is not that hard to do over an 18 year period. Generosity, responsibility ... whatever you want to call it. I feel as if this opportunity is bypassed far too often.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how anyone thinks striking for one day means anything. Especially on a Thursday not too long after mid terms. More than anything it shows that students aren't really willing to make any kind of sacrifice so if I were the administration I'd laugh it off.

Also, the way most students vilify the administration is borderline delusional. Then again there is a lot of delusional idealism going around these days.

Steve Saideman said...

Anon 9: I am a big fan of social justice. I just think (not just that I want more money for myself) that the current system where the poor and middle class pay the same as the wealthy is regressive and unjust. Higher tuition sticker prices do not necessarily reduce access.

The big stat here that raises questions about access is this: Quebec has the lowest tuition in Canada and the lowest access. Correlation is not causation, but this is mighty suggestive.

I also would like to think that this generation of students is terrific for thinking about the next gen, rather than themselves. But I am really not so sure that under-funding education down the road due to tuition freezes is really all that great for the next gen, for this gen, for anyone.

Do keep up this conversation, as I am glad to see a diversity of views, and people are right to criticize me when I am too simplistic, snarky, or cynical.

Isabelle said...

Crucial point about increases in class sizes being more fundamentally destructive to quality of education than higher tuition fees. I don't attend McGill, but I study IR at Queen's and it's been a HUGE topic of discussion over the past two years.

Any chance you're coming to Kingston?

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Saideman! I'm sorry to hear you're leaving McGill, I took the massive intro to IR course with you and I really wanted to take politcs of ethnonationalism...

I think the discussion that has been going on is quite comprehensive, but your argument about American universities often costing less than the sticker price is somewhat one-sided. McGill actually costs a good bit less than the sticker price for many of its students as well, but it maximizes its financial aid(in grants, not including loans)at $7,500 a year. This covers just about half of my international tuition. US Federal loans give me $6000 max this year. I had to make up the rest (around $2000) with a shitty private loan. Raising QC tuition also increases my tuition (international supplement + QC fees), which means that with such an increase, a lot of students actually won't be able to afford it even if they are eligible for max financial aid as I am. Frankly, I don't have a choice about this - I attended the cheapest school I could - and I think it's unfair for this to be stuck on students.

Anonymous said...

Professor Saideman,

Please affirm that I am not crazy, a neo-con, or uneducated about this situation.
I think it is reasonable to raise tuitions by way more than what the government and McGill University are planning. I say this because I think student debt is not a terrible thing to have, and that paying for an education (a) motivates the student to do better (b) allows for the university to actually function, and many other reasons. However, university should be affordable for all. And I did a little math to see what affordable would mean. If a student were to work 20 hours a week during the school year at minimum wage for let's say 30 weeks, he/she would earn (before taxes of course) $6000. And if that student worked 40 hours, minimum wage for 18 weeks (giving a 4 week vacation for the year), the student would make $7200. That's $13,200, before taxes. Is that a reasonable amount to charge for university for a Quebec resident?

A poli sci student doing math

Anonymous said...

To "A poli sci student doing math":

You forgot to include twelve months of food and rent.

Anonymous said...

'A poli sci student doing math' also forgot that it is very difficult/impossible to find a job that is 40 hrs a week that doesn't conflict with the university courses you are using your wages to purchase...

Anonymous said...

Sorry. I was being Montreal centric as a Quebec student. If you are Montreal student, you should be able to live at home for university, therefore, cutting the rent and food bills dramatically. And if you choose to move out, those are your expenses to cover too. If you aren't a Montreal student, then the extra money that the school is getting from higher tuitions should be able to help you.
As for the 40 hours a week comment...that was for a summer job. I wrote a job during the school year was 20 hours, which is do able. Many people do that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your points Prof. Saideman, and I am sad to hear that you are leaving, I was looking forward to taking your 400 level class. Where are you headed?