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Education neoliberalism disguised as social policy

by Jorg Muller-Muralt Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 at 12:48 PM

The share of the workforce with a college, university or technical college education is rising. The ever-increasing demands on skilled workers and the needs of the labor market are also driving up the cost of education. It is right and necessary to ask questions about financing.

Two education experts want to hit students harder on the wallet.

Education neoliberalism disguised as social policy

by Jürg Müller-Muralt

Students should contribute more to their education costs: a tricky neoliberal proposal for financing education.

[This article published on 1/12/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The share of the workforce with a college, university or technical college education is rising. The ever-increasing demands on skilled workers and the needs of the labor market are also driving up the cost of education. It is right and necessary to ask questions about financing and affordability. Now, however, there is a radically new concept for financing tertiary education that is committed to neoliberal thinking. It was published in an "NZZ" editorial supplement and comes from Stefan C. Wolter, director of the Swiss Coordination Office for Education Research (SKBF) in Aarau and professor of education economics at the University of Bern, and from Conny Wunsch, professor of labor economics at the University of Basel.

Students should pay more

The main thrust of the document is that students should pay more for the costs they incur. In addition, the choice of studies should be better aligned with the needs of the labor market. In their contribution, Wolter/Wunsch put forward a supposedly socio-political argument: they fear a redistribution from the bottom to the top in the future, because the educational costs for tertiary education would increasingly have to be borne by those who do not enjoy the benefits of a university degree, for example. This is because the previously valid social expectation "that those who benefit from higher education will pay back the costs later in their working lives through higher taxes" will no longer be adhered to.

"Social contract in a state of flux

This mechanism is working less and less well, according to the author and the author of the article. It is becoming apparent "that the ever-increasing number of part-time jobs and the longer interruptions in the working lives of very well-educated specialists are causing this social contract to totter. Even with part-time workloads of less than 70 percent, tertiary-educated people "no longer pay enough additional taxes to cover the education costs advanced by society, despite higher wages compared to people without tertiary education."

"Downstream tuition"

To address this claimed but unproven imbalance, Wolter/Wunsch propose the introduction of so-called "downstream tuition fees," which would only come into play "if one's high earned income alone does not guarantee repayment." How this is to be calculated and how the repayment modalities are to be regulated is complex; we refer interested parties to the "NZZ" article. Only this much: It smells of considerable tax bureaucracy. In any case, Wolter/Wunsch expect a steering effect: "The possible financial consequences will create incentives to reflect more strongly on the choice of education, study behavior, prospects on the labor market and one's own employment behavior." Students would thus not only think more about "how to keep costs down, but also how to positively influence a future income through their choice of studies." The implicit assumption that a significant proportion of students today do not do this and therefore do not later work in the field marked out by their studies is not substantiated.

Choice of studies according to economic criteria

In other words, and more pointedly: Students are asked to base their choice of study to a large extent on economic criteria - on the needs of the economy on the one hand, and on individual profit maximization on the other. The fact that students are expected to make their decision heavily dependent on what the future job and earning opportunities will be like in their intended professions is a complete technical overload - but owed to the ideology of neoliberalism, according to which everyone should make his own fortune. The rapid technological and economic development of the past 20 years has shown that this is difficult to assess, even for experts. Digitization, for example, is revolutionizing entire occupational fields to an unprecedented extent; it is extremely difficult to make reliable forecasts about future job profiles, requirements and income trends for just a few years, let alone for the next 20 years. In addition, most professions are changing so rapidly that the knowledge and skills acquired in an apprenticeship must be geared to ever new requirements in the course of a career and must often be transferable to other activities. In a few years, non-linear careers will be the norm.

Side effects ignored

The proposal of the two education experts contains further serious shortcomings. Why should Switzerland radically change its extremely successful tertiary education system and endanger it with possible side effects? There is not a word in the article about side effects or even collateral damage. Nor does it discuss the other possible consequences for education policy. Moreover, the article does not show any empirical evidence that the proposed financial incentives will even lead to the desired steering effects.

Part-time work will become more difficult

Among the side effects is the pressure on graduates to repay education costs. For example, part-time work will become more difficult, for example in order to distribute family obligations equally between men and women (children, care work, voluntary commitments, etc.). Obstacles are also being placed in the way of further training that will be necessary in the future (keyword "lifelong learning"). People who go through particularly long and specialized training courses and further education that lead to socially necessary but financially less lucrative activities (basic research, innovation, start-ups, artistic professions) are also disadvantaged.

Equal opportunities? Missing

The term "equity of opportunity" typically does not appear once in the entire article. The proposed system change would make it more difficult to tap the reserves of gifted students in the socially disadvantaged classes. Students already have to bear considerable costs themselves, since the scholarship system in Switzerland is poorly developed. One year of study usually leads to real living costs of 20,000 to 30,000 Swiss francs, which students and their families have to bear. These costs already lead to social disadvantage, which is why students from economically weaker backgrounds not infrequently switch to courses that are shorter and guarantee a secure income more quickly. Or they extend their study time because they also have to work part-time to help finance their living costs. A 2021 study by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (SFSO) shows that students today work an average of ten hours per week to earn 40 percent of their living expenses themselves. The consequence of the Wolter/Wunsch proposal would be that their debt account would continue to grow because of their part-time work.

Mountains of debt and misaligned incentives

If downstream tuition fees were now also collected, this could lead to considerable mountains of debt and thus to greater social consequential problems. Such antisocial disincentives torpedo economic and social goals. Those who focus too much on cost-debt minimization criteria and supposedly high income prospects when choosing a course of study, instead of putting aptitude, aptitude and great interest in the subject in the foreground, are doing a number of things wrong. It is often the intrinsically motivated who drive their personal goals in education and career with great inner commitment who are more successful than average and become drivers of innovation. There are enough examples of people who have made extremely successful careers despite studies that are generally considered "bread-and-butter".

Short-sighted, one-eyed, dangerous

This economizing tendency of education, as it is the basis of the Wolter/Wunsch proposal, is anything but economically sensible, it is simply short-sighted and one-eyed. This neoliberal concept is also dangerous because it is cleverly disguised as a reduction of redistribution from the bottom to the top in education policy and thus as a contribution to more sociopolitical justice - but in the end it would achieve exactly the opposite.


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