Sunday, 18 October 2009

Free market can engender pathologies

The public debate in Poland has recently concentrated on the issue of the level of education on Polish universities. Commentators and scholars after years deigned to notice how degraded the academic title of Master had been. Today virtually everyone who can afford to pay the fee can get the master’s degree. Why - the private universities have been mushrooming in last two decades. Set up by the businessmen willing to make money such schools churn out thousands of magisters with little knowledge and depressing feeling of wasted five years. No wonder, if their whole activity is based on “pretending” – we pretend that we teach them, they pretend to learn, at the end totally seriously we award them a master’s degree, because they have been paying us for five years, so the deserve to be “magistry”. Free market, although not flawless can pick out tawdry items. Such product are the qualifications of the graduates of those universities, often proved worthless by the labour market.

Reading the Friday issue of Gazeta Wyborcza I found an appalling example of master’s-for-money deal. I was mostly shocked by the message of the ad – Masz maturę – zrób magistra w dwa lata. Firstly the if not broken, then at least cracked Polish – zrób magistra. Should I draw it with crayons or conjure it up from my household waste? Or maybe look for an attractive creature of the opposite sex, do my job and wait for nine months – that’s even faster than two years! But how the hell can a high school leaver get the master’s degree within two years? On average it takes five. The ad gave the address of the School’s website. Curious to see what’s the catch I wasted some of my transfer limit and entered it. Below – the site only confirms the ad’s content and encourages the candidate with the drivelling summary of its offer.

“Unique teaching system” probably means nobody could stoop any lower. The further exploration of the website consumes my precious time and draws my exhausted eyes to the bottom of the page, where my sight runs across a caption (below).

Akademia nie gwarantuje zdobycia należytej wiedzy z zakresu wybranych kierunków w okresie studiów. Umożliwia w szybkim tempie przygotowanie studenta do obrony pracy magisterskiej.

I am deeply struck by the honesty of the school’s authorities. In other words they make no bones about the real goal of the undertaking – producing a graduate whose qualifications and knowledge won’t stand for anything!

At first it occurred to me such school should be shut down. But as I cooled off a bit and came to my senses I realised that according to the premise of rationality of choices made by the individuals such university should go bust without any regulatory help. If it does any harm to anyone, those harmed are the ones who choose to pay for education there – their choice and their potential misery after graduation.

Unfortunately it won’t go bust. There will always be the students who decide to study only to get the slip of paper called “a diploma”. We can only pin our hopes in the labour market – may it be able to verify the real value of job applicants.

Free market has in built-in inclination to favour mediocrity as it conforms to the expectations of the majority. That’s why in the prime time instead of an interesting documentary or a decent recognised film we have to watch “Taniec z gwiazdami”.


Michael Dembinski said...

Other than a 200 year deficit in free market democracy, why is it that in the US, the best universities are private (Harvard, Yale, Stanford), the mediocre ones are public(any university with the word 'State' in it)?

Maybe after two centuries, the will of the market will ensure that Poland's educational system will have turned itself around?

student SGH said...

I have no idea how the Polish universities will look in 200 years, but one thing is easy to take note of - Polish private universities are mediocre for the same reason why the ones in the States are excellent - they're profit-oriented.

Try to answer the question: what makes a good school: good lecturers / teachers or good students? The best students in Poland go to public universities, where the education is unpaid. As long as the best education opportunities are for free the picture is unlikely to change. In the United States the correlation between quality of teaching and fees is highly positive, in Poland it goes exactly the other way round...

It's a matter of:
- payments (and this of course entails the issue of unfair redistribution - it is said, but it not fully true that children of well-off parents study for free, but this is the topic for two different discussions - here I have a stimulus for next posts),
- image of both types of schools
- role of schools - in Poland public schools conduct research, private usually churn out graduates
- setting up a market mechanism which would ensure effective competition
- change in mentality of academic workers - either Mr important professor shape up or the free market forces will do away with him.

PS. are the studies in the UK paid? I suppose they are, how the scholarship system there?