Possibly the most prominent slogan employed in the defence of free education in Sri Lanka (and perhaps also elsewhere) is that “Education is a Right, not a Commodity”.
While this attempts to addresses one (provision to everyone, not just the privileged) of the two most pressing issues in Education today, it contributes to aggravating the other. And, ironically, it hints at what the other issue is…
A curious choice of words
First, why are Rights and Commodities considered mutually exclusive? When the USA’s 2nd Amendment gave citizens the Right to bear arms, it did not create an expectation that those arms would not be a commodity. Neither does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when it talks of the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state” and the “right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” imply that the transport should be provided free. Providing these Rights only requires protection against their infringment — and we accept that those with more money can buy better guns or travel more comfortably and frequently. The UDHR specifically calls for Education (at least in elementary and fundamental stages), to be free, which suggests that this is not something that automatically results from recognizing it as a Right.
Second, if the intention is to assert that Education should be provided for free (i.e. without charging the recipient, at least not at the point of consumption), why not simply say that? Why, instead, use the ambigious term “commodity” sans qualification? In mainstream economics (more on this later) it has a different meaning than what Marx describes in Das Kapital, and even if we chalk up Wikipedia choosing the former as the default and listing the latter as a disambiguation to a capitalist bias in society, why depend on a term more appealing to those of a strongly socialist persuasion (who would automatically understand the term in it’s Marxist sense) — a case of preaching to the choir?
It’s even more curious to invoke Marx / Marxism in the defence of Free Education, especially our implementation of it:
- Marx had no problem with the state organising revenue to fund educational activities, but he was less keen on the state running education, writing in “Critique of the Gotha Program” in 1875 that “Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfilment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.” This does not imply that he advocated for private firms running education, but he was possibly referring to the committee of teacher-student-worker-parent who controlled elementary and secondary schools, designed curricula and organized activities, instituted by Anatoly Lunacharsky (head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, 1917–29) in the USSR.
Coincidentally, Summerhill School, the oldest Democratic School still in operation, was established around the same time. Trivia tid bit: Whyteleafe School in Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl books is based on it
- Marx was critical of making university (the biggest battleground for public vs private education in Sri Lanka) free at the point of use as “defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts” — it would tend to benefit higher income groups, because university students are disproportionately selected from those groups (even when university is free). Locally, in a similar vein with schools, J. E. Jayasuriya was critical of ‘free education all round’ as a “a bonanza to the well-to-do” where the poor have subsidized the rich.
- Our public (and also private, but that’s not what’s being defended) education falls far short of late Marxist Brian Simon’s vision for comprehensive education as expressed in “A Life in Education” (emphasis ours):
“Up to the age of 16 all children should have the opportunity to experience a full all round education embodying the humanities, arts, sciences and technology — this is and always has been the aim of comprehensive education. In such schools there are no blind alleys, no once-and-for-all tests to cut off or divest children from access to learning. Education should be holistic, should address mental and physical health and wellbeing. It should help pupils think rather than learn facts, it should encourage pupils to question everything, to be sceptical, to think. Philosophy should be a central plank of education, from the earliest age. It should enable pupils to live their lives to the full not simply enable them to join the workforce.”
Public Goods vs Merit Goods
Notwithstanding the curiosities, there is much merit behind the argument: by placing on our governments a responsibility to fund Education we enable more social mobility and better distributive justice. More people are afforded access to education purely in recognization of their innate worth as humans (or at least, by virtue of their citizenship, since we generally accept that non-citizens are not entitled to the same benefits) rather than their capacity to pay.
This is a manifestation of our egalitarian ambitions — but it has to contend with our selfishness: our reluctance to “pay, as taxes, more of my hard-earned money to benefit those good-for-nothings”. With respect to the current status quo (where inequality is increasing) we believe the balance should shift towards the former, so we can allocate more funding for Education via a more progressive tax regime — but still, even if we accept that our system of education is serving students well (this is the other pressing issue), governments cannot increase funding indefinitely.
While some argue that education is a public good that should be provided free by the state, it isn’t, because it fails the criteria (yes, we’re being pedantic) of being nonexcludable (impossible or next to impossible to exclude people from using the good) and nonrivalrous (one person’s consumption does not diminish the quality of the good for others), and moreover there are some dangers of terming it a public good.
Furthermore, consumers invest (even if education is free, they have to invest their time, which has an opportunity cost) in education primarily for its private benefits (the neoliberal position of “study hard, get a good job, reap the rewards!”) and, given the competitive advantage it can create, it is impossible to keep the influence of private money out of education; legislation might, at best, keep it out of formal education within the country, but you can’t prevent people accessing formal education abroad, nor can you prevent private tuition, and beyond that there’s non-academic education (we disapprove of the deragotary term “extra-curricular”, and “co-curricular” is only a cosmetic improvement) and various non-formal and informal educational opportunities.
Therefore, at best, we can consider Education to be a merit good worthy of government subsidy, although this doesn't require it to be provided by the government, nor does it require sticking to the ideological position that education (especially beyond primary) be free for everyone (which, as even Marx observed, effectively subsidizes those who can afford to pay to the detriment of those who cannot).
Of course, allowing private money in education is a slippery slope and we must guard against the “market forces” that are slowly but surely dismantling public-funded education. Especially, we must find ways to reduce the inequalities that private education tends to exacerbate: For example, using a sliding scale of fees to increase inclusivity within private schools; taxing for-profit educational institutions (rather than raising general taxes); higher education to be free at time of consumption to all and paid back as a share of earnings after employment (not at its nominal price).
As mentioned before, “commodity” is an ambiguous word: under conventional economics, a commodity is a fungible good — and that’s exactly what mass public education aspires to be: offering the same education regardless of which school a student attends.
The Industrial Era mantra that conceived our schools also provided the answer to the problem of providing education efficiently (to more people at lower cost): standardisation. Education Reimagined explains it well:
The School-Centered Paradigm for Education was developed at a time when the challenge in society was to make education universally available. It was a time when the Industrial Revolution was taking hold and mass production — with its efficient assembly lines — was producing rapid growth in one industry after another. Applying this industrial approach to make education universally available, we created standardized schools that looked a lot like factories and a standard progression from kindergarten through 12th grade that looked a lot like assembly lines. Thus, in this perspective, learners are seen as unfinished works in progress, as vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. The education system is designed to move the learner at an average pace through a standard curriculum. Learning is assumed to be about providing groups of learners at the same age with a standard set of knowledge deemed appropriate for that age.
But the world of Industry 4.0 is very, very different to the past (and not only in terms of the world of work) — providing more of the same anachronistic education will not prepare students for it. And it isn’t just that our syllabus is outdated — so upgrading it or adopting a foreign syllabus (the darling of our private schools) will not be sufficient.
In Marketing 4.0, customer segmentation is already moving to serve a Segment of One. Likewise, Education 4.0 requires a shift from the School-centric paradigm of standardization to the Learner-centric paradigm of personalization: serving The Learner of One.
PS The essay Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals, by David F. Labaree, which we discovered only after publishing the story, offers a holistic framing by describing 3 approaches to schooling:
- Democratic Equality: a democratic society cannot persist unless it prepares all of its young with equal care to take on the full responsibilities of citizenship in a competent manner.We all depend on this political competence of our fellow citizens, since we put ourselves at the mercy of their collective judgment about the running of our society.
- Social Efficiency: Our economic well-being depends on our ability to prepare the young to carryout useful economic roles with competence. The idea is that we all benefit from a healthy economy and from the contribution to such an economy made by the productivity of our fellow worker.
- Social Mobility: Education is a commodity, the only purpose of which is to provide individual students with a competitive advantage in the struggle for desirable social positions. The aim is get more of this valuable commodity than one’s competitors, which puts a premium on a form of education that is highly stratified and unequally distributed.
The Democratic Equality goal arises from the citizen,
and education is a purely public good;
The Social Efficiency goal arises from the taxpayer and employer,
and education is a public good in service to the private sector;
The Social Mobility goal arises from the educational consumer,
and education is a private good for personal consumption