Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Equalizing educational chances

By Chang Chin-fen 張晉芬 and Yang Fang-chih 楊芳枝

An article on President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) electronic bulletin has led to a public debate about high tuition fees, social inequality and the privatization of university education. As they review educational reforms, reformers get bogged down in one-sided thinking in which business logic becomes the only thinking method and language.

If educational quality and results are measured by "investment" and "efficiency," reformers believe all the problems regarding higher education can be solved by privatizing public universities and raising tuition fees. We believe the most pressing tasks at the moment are to clarify the source of the problem and investigate the factors that cause educational inequality. This is the only constructive way.

Many supporters of educational reforms believe high tuition fees can break the unequal distribution of resources in society. They believe that upper-middle class children are more likely to enter public universities. So they think public universities with low tuition fees only deprive poor people of resources, to the benefit the children of the upper-middle class. On his Web site, Chen endorsed the high tuition-fee policy, believing education is a kind of "investment."

Who are most capable of investing in the education for children? Domestic and foreign studies indicate the educational level of parents is the most important factor, followed by class. The average educational level of children from well-educated families tends to be higher, regardless of whether tuition fees are high or low and whether the university is public or private. Even if we turn all the public universities into private ones, we will increase parents' burden but will not see much effect on the distribution of educational achievements in the next generation.

However, the heavy burden of educational costs does not start at university level. Parents' investment in their children's education starts at the kindergarten level. This means a family's socioeconomic status does not start to play an important role at the university level but in infancy. Could we solve this problem by privatizing all kindergartens and secondary schools to prevent upper-middle class families from getting too many advantages?

Similarly, people who are financially capable or sophisticated enough to visit museums and art galleries, attend performances at the National Theater or even travel abroad, are mostly children and families from the upper-middle class. In other words, our country helps the families and children of the upper-middle class to accumulate cultural capital.

To promote social equality, should we not request the government to withdraw subsidies for these cultural institutions? Or should we raise ticket prices to make the upper-middle class spend more money on art and cultural activities even though this would prevent anyone from the lower-middle class participating in these activities?

The argument that taxpayers' money from the lower-middle class is being used to subsidize public-university students will not help us understand the essence of the problem apart from highlighting the educational inequality between classes.

Whether they are like Chen's parents 30 years ago or are laborers with low income and little educational background, parents always hope their children have the opportunity to advance in society. The solution to class inequality is not to increase the burden of the middle class. Nor should we force the children of the lower-middle or the working class who get into public universities to take on odd jobs because of high tuition fees.

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