I’d been browsing through the news recently for a collection of articles to share on a rather broad topic: the influence of moneyed interests on the educational system. This is a longstanding interest of mine, having grown up during a time when a year in university cost about $1,200, and having watched tuition rates and living costs balloon exponentially ever since. But what shocked me into getting the links to this post up that much sooner is this emerging story from the US:
“The Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday said it brought fraud charges against ITT Educational Services Inc. and two of its top executives, alleging they misled investors about the looming financial impact of two badly-performing student-loan programs on the for-profit educator. […] ITT formed the student-loan programs to provide off-balance-sheet loans for ITT’s students in the wake of the financial crisis, when the market for private student loans dried up and for-profit schools created new ways to help students pay their tuition bills.”
Let us further expand on the dialogue surrounding money in education for the benefit of those who haven’t been as immersed in the debate:
“Corinthian Colleges, once one of the largest chains of for-profit schools in the country, is bankrupt. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection on May 4, 2015, one week after it shut down its 28 remaining campuses. Less than a year ago, more than 70,000 students were enrolled at the school.”
– source: Cheatsheet.com
“… [A]s the July 1 deadline approaches, the troubled [for-profit] industry has been mounting a last-ditch effort to avert or roll back the new rules. And suddenly it’s getting a lift from a set of unlikely allies: traditional colleges and universities. For years, the higher education establishment has viewed the for-profit education business as both a rival and an unsavory relation—the cousin with the rap sheet who seeks a cut of the family inheritance. Yet in a striking but little-noticed shift, nearly all of the college establishment’s representatives in Washington are siding with for-profit colleges in opposing the government’s crackdown.”
– source: Pacific Standard Magazine
Coverage of a report from the US GAO: “Four of the colleges — Westech, MedVance, Anthem and Westwood — ‘encouraged fraudulent practices” in meetings with undercover investigators, the report says. All 15 “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements.’ ”
– source: The Washington Post
“Eleven of 12 former Atlanta public school educators accused of participating in a conspiracy to cheat on student standardized tests were found guilty Wednesday of racketeering charges.”
– source: The Wall Street Journal
“Under regular inflation, prices can rise without limit. However, because grades are capped at A or A+, grade inflation results in a greater concentration of students at the top of the distribution. This compression of grades diminishes their value as an indicator of student abilities. Without grade inflation, a truly outstanding student might be awarded an A, while a very good student might receive a B+. With grade inflation, both students receive As, making it hard for employers and graduate schools to differentiate them. There is also evidence that lenient grading reduces student effort.”
– source: US News & World Report
“Lacking resources, facing incentives to push out low-performing students, and responding to a handful of highly-publicized school shootings, schools have embraced zero-tolerance policies that automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. Rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years—from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000 (3)—and have been most dramatic for children of color.”
– source: American Civil Liberties Union
There are a few good points to take back from all of this, key among them being the education lobby group’s opposition of regulations seeking accountability in government funding to institutions. Traditional schools are watching for-profit bad actors with a wary eye, fully aware of the chance that once the most dishonest behaviour has been done away with, they might be the next ones on the chopping block.
This may be a valid point: there is a significant problem in the student loan industry as a whole when it comes to transparency and accountability, and with a sizable segment of the present generation of young adults indentured to the loans industry, the education lobby has a lot to lose if forced to implement more stringent and transparent procedures.
Equally disturbing is that as moneyed interests continue to take a front seat, overall quality suffers. Higher education has already lost some footing in employers’ minds as an increased number of students graduated in recent years with diluted qualifications or were missing critical skill sets they should have learned while in college or university. Higher education, at least in theory, is about building on critical thinking skills, abstract concepts, and complex ideas. Passing those who can’t or won’t pick up these skills, sometimes due to a poorly designed program that fails its attendees, lowers the value of the establishment in a general sense.
When I hear the education lobby opposing regulation that would see tighter reins on government money, this isn’t a simple issue of laissez-faire policy, it’s an outright concession that may end in serious erosion of quality. This is the kind of behaviour that comes at the expense of students, employers, and society at a great many levels. It’s not feasible on a large scale to encourage progress and altruism by reducing communication and accountability, as the two sides are very much opposites and mutual exclusives. You cannot have improvement without accountability, and virtually every time an industry has leaned the way of deregulation with the reduced need for reporting and transparency, it has set the stage for self-serving behaviour by that industry, sometimes leading to mis-allocations, fraudulent activities, abuses of power, cover-ups, and lowered quality of services delivered, if not an overall reduced standard of living for the more vulnerable groups of people caught in the crossfire.
This has followed a similar trend of money as a corrupting force in American elementary and secondary institutions where it’s been forcing the focus to shift strongly toward test results and pass rates for budgetary reasons instead of functional learning outcomes. The byproduct has been grade fixing scams, low-scoring students pushed out of institutions to boost results, and other unsavory practices.
Apart from academia’s more newsworthy problems, it also wouldn’t hurt to shed light on a further subject that’s been worrying students, educators, and the labour market for some time: internships. Over the past few decades, the concept of educational volunteerism has come into fashion, and today you can find many students (and even some entry-level employees in certain places) accepting short-term unpaid positions under the belief they stand to gain an edge over their peers through expanded opportunities for learning, networking, and career advancement.
I’ve gone to some lengths to locate and include a variety of perspectives on this, from the strictly legal to those in favour to those against, and others that take mixed stances or bring other ideas to the table:
“In industries across the board, employers viewed an internship as the single most important credential for recent grads – more than where you went to school or what you majored in. Even your grades. ‘I learned a lot more from that internship than I did in school,’ Abbareddy says. ‘It’s a different kind of learning.’ ”
– source: Marketplace
“Unpaid internships have been controversial due to, apparently, more benefits for the employers than the students/interns. Although remuneration is at the discretion of the companies offering the internships, employers should recognize that a small salary or wage is likely to generate more interest among interns. The FLSA states that no employment contract exists between interns and the employer/trainer when the training received by interns is in the private for-profit sector.”
– source: Investopedia.com
“The fight against unpaid internships continues this year with a growing number of interns looking to sue companies for unpaid work experience. And, despite the fact that many unpaid internships where the intern takes on real work are in fact unlawful in countries including the UK and the US, many employers apparently remain blissfully ignorant of the illegality this free labor.”
– source: TopUniversities.com
“Science, engineering and technology research has been a big part of the Mitacs-Accelerate program, but it is now beginning a ‘big push’ into social sciences, traditionally a harder area for generating paid internship opportunities. Past projects have included an evaluation of First Nations heritage as the basis for land use planning (done for a First Nations forestry license partnership), a psychology research project into eye movements in gaming, and alternative methods of labour organization and recruitment to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers.”
– source: UniversityAffairs.ca
“The problem is not that the unpaid interns themselves necessarily get a bad deal, the problem is that the system works against class mobility. Only the comparatively privileged can afford to make the ‘investment’ of accepting an unpaid internship.”
– source: The Atlantic
“Anecdotally, based on thirty years of observing patterns in internship postings, unpaid internships seem to increase during poor economic periods, only to subside once the economy improves. Employers have different reasons for ticking up unpaid positions: (1) the desire to maintain internships programs for preparing future workers but cannot afford to pay them or face criticism from current employees who may be incurring pay cuts or layoffs; (2) temporarily circumvent hiring freezes; and (3) meet their social responsibility for training the next generation of professionals in their field. Other legitimate and quasi-legitimate reasons can be put forth.”
– source: Michigan State University
“Measures announced in last month’s budget to protect unpaid interns have turned out to be far less potent than advertised, New Democrats charge. Details of the measures were spelled out in an omnibus budget implementation bill tabled last Friday and NDP MP Andrew Cash said he was disappointed to find the Harper government is doing nothing to protect interns from sexual harassment, being forced to work unlimited hours or being otherwise exploited as unpaid labour.”
– source: The Globe and Mail
“[S]tudents say they’ll continue to suffer even after Thursday’s crackdown against unpaid internships by the Ontario Ministry of Labour — action that led to the shuttering of two internship programs at the popular Canadian magazines Toronto Life and The Walrus.”
– source: CBC
“The main exception would be for interns working under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university, and secondary school students working under an authorized work experience program. Most of the interns at Toronto Life and The Walrus do not fall into those categories, so most have subsequently been told they no longer have positions at the magazines. The magazines say they simply cannot afford to pay their interns.”
– source: CBC
I have to wonder whether the graduate of today is any better off than their counterpart of 20 years ago, particularly when it comes to employment following graduation.
The volume of graduate supply versus labour demand plays a significant role in the way institutions create policies and manage faculties, and the way businesses manage risk and hiring, as the bottom line in most situations is essentially a financial balancing act.
While circumstances still favour the idea that higher educational attainment generally results in better wages, a growing supply of well-educated individuals in the work force combined with problems in education (trends, perceptions, passing unqualified persons, grade inflation, market balance, etc.) and external forces at many levels (economic instability, new technology, globalization, off-shoring, wage standards, labour laws, limited deindustrialization, consumer attitudes, high household debt, stock market shocks, etc.) has seen many organizations shift into a far more risk-averse attitude, sit on their cash reserves, and see less worth in the simple achievement of a degree when hiring new employees. Indeed, today the notion of value is invested far more deeply in the hows and whys behind the degree, the skill set of the individual, and the work experience matched to that person’s education. Employers can afford to be picky. There are more than enough graduates to choose from, in a lot of cases.
The phenomenon of unpaid internships is a fairly recent idea that diverges somewhat from the time-honoured tradition of apprenticeship, and in its own fashion it’s evolved with the goal of helping to bridge the gap between school and employment. In that sense, it bides time and fills unmet needs, including the needs of employers to do work and save money, as well as the needs of students who desire a springboard to new activities and greater levels of experience.
For many, it can offer a much needed shortcut for taking those first few steps after graduation. In contrast with paid on-the-job training, it’s far from ideal for most, however, and the unique circumstances it brings can give very mixed results depending on where a person lives, where they work, and who they know.
At one end of the spectrum, proponents argue there are situations where such volunteerism can and does evolve into solid networking, good contacts, and exceptional opportunities so long as the process is adequately planned, vetted, supervised, and supplemented with fruitful learning opportunities. The above linked article from University Affairs showcases some of the benefits that come from running a well vetted, well managed internship system.
On the other side, critics have brought to light many cases of bad internships constituting illegal exploitation which either failed to show regard for the safety or the needs of the intern, as well as legal internships that could be best summed up as indentured servitude or deadwood positions, offering fairly high risk and scant benefit for the intern, with few or no meaningful opportunities for learning, skill development, or portfolio building. The above linked story concerning the fiasco in Ontario, where the Canadian government intervened and shut down two major magazine internship operations, highlights the spirit if not also the letter of the problem: companies want labour and resources, but they may not want to accept the risk of paying for it.
Concerns have also been raised about disproportionate effects to migrant and immigrant populations, as well as the fear that unpaid work in general harms wages and degrades morale among all workers.
Further, there is the argument that internship inherently favours class and privilege, as those living at or near the poverty line may rarely be able to afford the benefits of a quality internship while also struggling with the daily cost of living — housing, food, clothing, transport, and other amenities all have a major effect on disposable income that directly influences one’s capacity to participate in society and pursue non-paying activities.
Without some sort of financial incentive to cement unpaid internships as the mainstay (or even a supplement) to household income in which they deliver some sort of appreciable near-term material benefit, the concept otherwise remains a hard sell among those with little disposable income, and may give way to the search for paying work.
In summary, these two bodies of current issues — both the range of troubles endemic to and surrounding academia, and the range of issues concerning internships — represent significant challenges to society.
The damaging conduct of moneyed agendas in education have served to harm the mission of the establishment, eroding the value of the training and honours into which so many of us have paid years of loans and working wages. The dangerous policies of marks-for-money and inflated achievement, both of which show serious disregard for the well-being of the student, have similarly served to damage confidence on all sides. There was a time when this was not the case, and qualifications were more strongly valued. We need to take that time back.
Simultaneously, in an increasingly fluid global economy the attitude toward human resources has changed. Thanks to a more networked and volatile climate, it’s no longer the strong individual who wins out, but the one with the benefits of interconnectedness and flexibility gained from cutting their teeth on the shores of their chosen industry. To that end, internships and especially unpaid internships have taken the lead, but they’re not working out well as a solution. Well-known abuses, coupled with an absence of wages for legions of desperate workers in serious need of remuneration, signal a journey that’s only just begun.
And the way we’re presently embarking on that journey, on both counts, sucks.
But even these problems are things we can fix. Public campaigns, lobbying, lawmaker engagement, accountability, word of mouth, and social justice, all combined with perseverance and an unflinching commitment to improving the quality of our institutions, are the tools that will get us where we need to be.
At its core, this dialogue is about our quality of life at some of the most fundamental levels. If we want our education to remain useful and our work force to remain accessible, we need to fix the path we’re treading by dealing with these issues head-on.
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