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Professor Roger Bowden

Throwing money at education

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Everybody loves complaining about education; either theirs, or more typically, someone else’s. But things do rather come to a head when politicians spot a voting opportunity. Just in case you missed it, the NZ Labour Party under their ‘Working Futures Plan’ is proposing to offer free post school education (effectively,  free tertiary tuition), with a projected cost (theirs not mine) of $1.2 billion per annum. This, they say, will help rectify declining student enrolments, which in turn are because of escalating tertiary fees. They don’t pause to ask just why the escalating fees, but that’s another story.

My own formal education is well behind me (thank heaven!), but education in general is something that one never stops thinking about; unless you’re a politician, paid not to think, but to toe the party line. And it just so happens that education is become big news overseas. The first set of news stories is about the ‘over qualification phenomenon’. By some estimates, up to 60% of graduates in the US, Canada, and the UK are working in jobs for which their qualifications are not needed. It’s hardly a surprise.  I had observed the same thing right here in NZ, with Masters level graduates working in clerical jobs, or with marketing and management graduates pumping petrol.

Though even here, a recent OECD study[1] found 7% of graduates could not read a fuel gauge properly. The OECD report goes on to say that a three year undergraduate degree was too expensive and unsuitable for people with poor literacy and numeracy. It warns the removal of a cap on student numbers could make the problem worse. And there’s another can of worms, as to whether more vocationally directed degrees in things like Events Management or Interior Design don’t exacerbate the over-qualification problem.

But just to get back on track, you can see what the poor old Kiwi taxpayer is up for. The tax hike to pay for all this might lead to even higher taxes to support all those unemployable graduates.

It’s surely time to revisit some pretty important fundamentals where education is concerned, and I say this not just as a taxpayer, but as a matter for society. Enter contribution two, this one from no less than the US White House. President Obama has announced[2] he will ask Congress for USD4billion to support computer science education:

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill. It’s a basic skill, right along with the three R’s,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.

Obama said only about one-quarter of K-12 schools offer computer science instruction, but that most parents want their children to develop analytical and coding skills.

“Today’s auto mechanics aren’t just sliding under cars to change the oil. They’re working on machines that run on as many as 100 million lines of code,” Obama said. “That’s 100 times more than the Space Shuttle. Nurses are analyzing data and managing electronic health records. Machinists are writing computer programs.”

There is a distinction here between ‘code’ and ‘science’. Code is what you’ll see if you right click on ‘View page source’ when you’re on any webpage.  Many commentators have called for coding to be taught in schools. But this may not be the answer, for code as such has an unfortunate liability for superseded obsolescence.

I put the problem –as to just what is needed – to Dr Tanya Jenkin, an alumnus of the Cambridge University Computer Science Laboratory, with some high level industry experience. She writes:

‘In fact relatively few people are needed to write code.  However, lots of people need to understand how to specify desired behaviour for programs (‘requirements’) and general principles of using different types of software, what software is capable of, where the complexity comes, etc. Arguably these sorts of things can be taught best by getting people to write a bit of code in any well-formed language.”

“There are 3 basic types of languages: procedural, functional & logical, which require very different ways of framing the problem by the programmer.  The last two are generally only used by the AI community, so by and large all the languages you’ll see discussed in the media are procedural.  And once you’ve learnt a couple, you can pick up any other almost immediately.  What is more important than learning the language itself, however, is learning the way it is used: the libraries available for it, the architectural patterns, the pitfalls, etc.”

Which more or less corresponds to my own work history. The real problem was knowing how the system worked, and what could be done. But the best way to understand this was learning by doing; and that did involve code, even if most of mine is now obsolete!

So what can we take away from all this? A central problem is that ‘education ain’t education’. The over-qualification problem is a symptom that the times are changing, and we need to refocus on what is useful, important and realistically feasible.  Whether at school, TAE or university, curriculums have to be evolving in response to the needs of industry and the employability of graduates.  But education is an industry full of rent seekers, pushing this or that personal barrow. I suspect many of the barrow pushers will be voting Labour next year.

Throwing money at the problem just won’t work. It has to be money properly focussed and directed. Even here, I’m not that sure whether President Obama has it quite right. The analogy with the 3 R’s is misplaced; at the wrong educational level, for one thing. And his statements lack a more detailed focus, as to what can be achieved, for how many, and what will be displaced from the curriculum. Maybe we can abandon English expression for coding, if we haven’t (like), already (like) done that (like) already.

But I have my doubts. Vietnamese tech entrepreneur Binh Tanh, moved home after cashing in on a successful start up venture in Silicon Valley, is worth listening to[3]:

“If you look at scores for Vietnam in reading, math and science, they actually score higher than countries like the US and the UK. That’s the foundation for computer science that’s given Vietnam an edge.”

And that’s one thing I did notice in a recent course for the Vietnam State Treasury: the numeracy and literacy of all the students. In the order of things, those are the skills that really count. They must not be diluted.


[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3421045/The-value-English-degree-undermined-students-t-read-count-properly-damning-international-report-declares.html

[2] https://ca.finance.yahoo.com/news/obama-wants-4b-help-students-learn-computer-science-130722442.html

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35227626