Friday, February 24, 2006

Economics and education

This week I was invited to go and lecture at a northern university about my day job in front of a group of BA and MA students of computer animation. Lots of people were very good to me when I was a student so I like to do what I can to give a little back. Since I'm generally pretty busy in the trenches of VFX I don't get the chance to do talks that often and the large gaps between them really shows up how the education system has changed over the last ten years or so.

I was the final year to get a student grant in the UK, i.e. my education was free. Nowadays the students pay for everything, from tuition fees through to living expenses. This is the dominant model throughout the world so far as I can fathom it and its proponents claim that it enables a freer market to flourish in the education sector where excellence is rewarded and the inept institutions fall by the wayside. That is a fair argument but there is a knock-on effect which is less beneficial to the long-term quality of education, and it is this:

If one's education is paid for it is a privilege and it is therefore behoven upon the student to do what the college and its lecturers expect. The student is not in control of the relationship and given that the lecturers have the experience you can argue that to a greater or lesser extent "they know best". Once a student is paying for everything the university is now merely offering a service to the student. If a student doesn't like something, they can (and do) refuse to do it, or take their custom elsewhere to a more amenable college . Why should they do something they don't want to? It's their money they're spending. The upshot of this, and I see this in every graduating class of students that applies for jobs in the studios I've worked at, is that their experience gets narrower every year. If someone thinks that they aren't interested in art theory and there is no compulsion to study it, then they won't. The fact that in 5 years time this lack of education is going to harm their job prospects will not occur to them (why should it, they don't yet have the experience to know?) This reversal in the relationship of student and institution is very damaging and is serving students very poorly in the long-term.

The situation gets worse when you consider that schools are also now being forced to specialize as arts, maths, language or science-centric institutions. Kids are being forced to specialize far too early before they have had a chance to explore what's out there and then their own inertia will tend to lead them to make equally if not more restrictive choices at university where their spending power renders it practically impossible for the colleges to do a thing about it.

This is a classic example of how an economic consideration is failing potentially talented students, stymying their development and producing generations of narrow-minded and under-educated youngsters who have been sold short by the system. A broad, comprehensive education that covers a wide range of study-areas and produces thinking, culturally aware individuals seems in direct opposition to the practice of turning out skilled, yet uncritical automata that current educational directives seem hell-bent on constructing. Yet another case of successive governments of all politcal persuasions knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It depresses me greatly.

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