29 April 2014

Is education a commodity or a public good?

Is education a commodity or a public good? 

I'm not convinced that education is either commodity (fully fungible privately owned good) or a public good (owned by all, commonly enjoyed benefits). BOTH ideas have significant faults and BOTH are misleading.

Individually quality assured. 
I'm uncomfortable with education being "public" because the graduate is the person who privately extracts the most benefit from the education in the form of higher wages. People don't endure accounting degrees because they love it, they do it for purely selfish reasons such as employment. Sure public benefits from education, but that doesn't make it a public good. The public benefits from Cole or Woolies because we don't stave, but that doesn't mean selling food is a public good. Education is also experiential (not a physical good), it's a deeply personal thing.

Sometimes, we handle iron ore with
more care than we do our students.
Nor is education a commodity. The “commodity” tag implies that you can just beat things down on price because it’s all “about the same”, but high end talent isn’t really like that. Commodities are bought (not earned), and you can always own infinitely more of the stuff. So, you don’t really “own” education, but nor can we say that it’s publicly “owned” either. Education is limited to lifespans, memory loss, attention spans. There is really only so much you can do with 24 hours (unless there’s 25+hours in your day). Further, public goods (like beaches, air, safe environments) are consumed without any effort. Conversely, it takes are fair whack of effort to both get an education, and yet more effort to actually use the knowledge in the community/workforce.   

I’m sceptical of analogies, but here goes:

It might be better if we think of we re-think of education as part of the “privately embodied infrastructure”.  Education is more like a private toll bridge. It goes somewhere that people want to go, and the provider can charge a price for the public to use it. Many decide to give it away for free, others charge high prices (think of the last time you had to use a medical specialist).

I don't really care if you think of it as a
"public benefit " or not, but somebody has to pay.
Sure, some people go to school so they can be doctors in remote areas and willing chose to receive close to zero pay. But is totally selfless altruism true of half of our students? Even 10%? I don’t think any of my accounting grads enrolled because they felt that society would be better off if we “protected investors by providing them with the most truthful and useful information needs when choosing to allocate their resources” – yet that’s exactly what accountants do! People engage in education at great personal expense because it mostly yields private rewards. Positive effects on society is an externality.

As educators, we are more like architects who show people how to build their own infrastructure, but we cannot install it for them.  When people pay tuition fees, they are buying themselves opportunities.  They are not buying a “thing”.

Education is a society building experience. I don’t believe it is a commodity, nor is it a public good.

----------- Reviewer's commentary ----------- 

SELF CRITICISM: this argument presented above confuses “education” as being “the process of getting an education” and “the state of being educated”.  Phillip, Please re-draft your thesis and resubmit. 

-Tetracarbon out.