The student as labourer-consumer

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
One of the odder beliefs that our culture seems to have developed about markets is the idea of market efficiency. Specifically, the idea that – given the publicly available information presented at the time of action – the actions of any given player in a market are unable to offer greater efficiency than the average of the actions of all players within that market. Or, to stick this in non-economist language, if everyone has access to the same info then no-one has an advantage.

Prices are “imagined” (there really is no better word) to reflect the sum of relevant available information. So, if we know that over the past 10 years, graduates have earned x times more than non-graduates, we would make a choice of whether or not to invest in a university course based on that knowledge – thus the price of university education (in a free market) would reflect the availability of this knowledge.

You can already spot where this falls down. Firstly, as they used to say on the radio adverts, past performance does not indicative of future returns. Secondly, I (as an uber-HE geek) would be making my decision based on a substantially greater set of information, and more importantly a substantially greater understanding of the relative value of said information, than someone with no access to that level of geekery – so I get an advantage over someone like my 17-year-old self who was the first in their family to attend university.

Government action in England has so far attempted to address the second of these issues – committing to the provision of a “key information set” (KIS). This covers vital stuff such as reported student satisfaction with teaching, course contact hours, accommodation costs and the average graduate salary. Let’s leave aside the practicalities both of collecting and comparing this information – issues that are being worked on assiduously and carefully by staff within institutions, HEFCE and the government – and ask the fundamental question of whether this is good information to base an investment decision on.

There’s a whole (and scary) field of study around the idea of “human capital“, which suggests ways of making decisions concerning precisely this kind of personal investment. Broadly speaking, you can contrast the idea of potential labour (one’s ability to do something considered useful to a person who may want to give you money to do it) with actual labour (getting on and doing stuff to get paid). Education – within this model – is an investment in potential labour, giving one the ability to achieve greater benefit from actual labour. It’s vanishingly rare that I get to write a paragraph that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx would agree with, but there we are.

Where I would depart from both is to postulate that the accumulation of potential labour is in itself actual labour. Education, I would argue, is an active process, and one of the great tragedies of the contemporary marketisation of learning is that it is widely assumed that it is passive.

Passive accumulation of benefit is easy to price – it’s like restaurant food. A price is stated, I pay the price, and (usually) get the pizza as specified. If I pay more for my pizza I get a better experience, either better quality, larger quantities or more convenient delivery. Nothing I personally do (within reason) affects the experience I pay for, or the benefits I get from it. So I can make a decision based on my needs and requirements, taking cost and other relevant information into account, and I’m happy and pizza-filled. And the pizza restaurant owner can decide what to offer me, and at what price, drawing on similar historical information.

Active processes are more difficult to conceptualise, and they are problematic to assign value to in marketised systems. You could see exercise (to exercise off all this pizza) as a potential worked example. There are a whole range of gyms I could join, using everything from price to available equipment to the relative attractiveness of the clientele as criteria. Or I could not bother. The amount of my financial investment in exercise is markedly less relevant to my success than the amount of personal effort I put in. I could join the most expensive gym in Bristol and sit around drinking smoothies and ogling, or I could pay nothing and go for a brisk walk every morning. Gym owners can tell me all kinds of stuff about the historical success of their clients and the facilities available to me, but if I only use the juice bar I don’t get any of those expected benefits.

So the best I can hope for from university education is that it gives me the tools I need to actively get myself to the place I want to be. I can’t blame the university if I don’t get there … I can only blame myself for not putting the work in, or for not choosing to buy the tools and support I needed. But what information would I need to make an informed choice regarding which tools and what support I needed?

The information set I would need would be wide-ranging, and quite possibly unique to me. I’d want to put a lot of faith in my own aptitudes (and would be interested in ways of measuring these to gain a better understanding of what these really are), and ways in which the labour I would be undertaking is matched or not to these aptitudes. This is not to trivialise the aptitudes I would gain during the course, indeed these would be brought more closely into focus by my knowledge of any disparity between the two – I would also have a clearer insight into the support I would need to be offered to support these.

But labourer-consumer also works as a passive model. Within the late-capitalist conception of higher study students are indeed paying to work – to work after graduation in  a more renumerative (or, less often, a more satisfying) role. But this higher payment is a speculation – more simply, a gamble – in that a student will have no way of knowing whether such a role will be available to them at such salaries at the point of graduation. This is also seen in other careers where candidates are expected to pay for their own training, most notably with commercial pilots. New pilots are paying to be exploited by prospective employers (little info is available online, but £50,000 seems to be a frequently quoted figure on fora), without any personal growth that would be attractive within another field (a pilot’s license is pretty useless to a bus driver, though rates of pay are fairly similar.) This is the danger of seeing education as passive, it becomes the accumulation of competencies linked to actual (or perceived) employer needs.

I’m far from convinced that paying to work is a helpful development within the history of labour relations. Whether Higher Education can make it work will be linked to how far away they can move from a passive model of education and towards something that offers active personal benefits.

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