About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.

Valuing Education

Discussions about funding as well as the question “is education a right or privilege” got me thinking; how do we value education?

When we talk about how much something is valued, we want to quantify “value” and the easiest way to do that is to look at how much money is spent on it.  I realized while thinking about this question that I had never looked at the raw numbers of how much money we spend on education from a supply side.

According to the World Bank, in 2009 the U.S. spent 13.1% of all government expenditures on education, while Switzerland spent 16.2%.World Bank Stats

Defining U.S. federal money spent on education is difficult, as this New York Times article points out, but I like the author’s definition and conclusion.  Jason Delisle puts the federal spending number at about $107.6 billion in 2012, out of a total federal budget of $3.5 trillion – so right about 3% of the federal budget.  I don’t interpret that as a sign the federal govt doesn’t value education – rather that education has and will continue to be the state’s responsibility.

The majority of funding for education comes from states in the US, much as cantons are responsible for funding most education in Switzerland.  The numbers I found from Virginia’s DPB (Department of Planning & Budget) were eye opening – from 2008-2010, 39.4% of all moneys the State generated went towards education.  In a $74.8 billion budget, that translates into roughly 29.5 billion dollars.  That’s for all education, from preschools on up.

According to the 2012 Public Finances report by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance, Swiss federal spending in 2011 was 10.4% of all expenditures for education and research (it’s unclear to me if including “research” means including funding for the SNSF).  “State” spending on education was 17% (cantons & communes).  These percentages translate to 5.4 billion CHF federally and 32.7 billion CHF by cantons & communes.

Looking at it from the Va state budget perspective, I’d say the numbers argue that education is highly valued – in fact, we spend more state money on education than anything else, and it takes up more than 1/3 of our entire state budget.  Maybe from a global perspective it isn’t as encouraging, with the World Bank numbers in the teens, but it’s still a decent chunk of money when one considers all the services/expenditures governments have.  I wanted to include similar data from Switzerland, but I don’t feel like direct comparison with the numbers from the U.S. is legitimate since in some cases the funding apparatuses might be totally different.  Perhaps the best US/CH comparison for our purposes is again from the World Bank data – expenditure per student in tertiary education as a % of GDP per capita: Switzerland = 44.7, U.S = 19.6.
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However, the numbers aren’t the only story.  We can argue whether the money we devote to education is an accurate reflection of how valuable we think that education is.  Is the value of a bachelor’s degree determined by the increased income it will provide over the lifetime of an individual?  That definition doesn’t leave room for “liberal arts” education, and yet liberal arts programs are still embraced across the U.S.

In our GPP “University of Swissica” group, there was a lot of discussion about how education broadens minds and universities “teach people how to think”.  If this is true, how do we define the “value” of helping adolescents become independent, creative and engaged members of society rather than just consuming automatons?  Therein lies the difficulty – that there are social and moral components to education that are impossible to put a number on and yet still have value.

So what happens when we only take an “economic” view of education?  I think this quote from Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor, is apt: “…A market economy is a tool, it’s a valuable tool, it’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use and that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being – an unreflective way of thinking and being – that just assumes that all the good things in life can, in principle, be up for sale.  And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor and that money can’t, or shouldn’t, buy.”

US academic researchers in Switzerland – for the money?

A friend shared this thought provoking PhD comic with me.

While I thought the comic did a great job of addressing a very depressing issue for academic scientists in the US (that of rapidly dwindling funding), what caught my eye was the brief interview with Shann Yu at EPFL (in Lausanne, CH).  I listened to the podcast of the interview (here).  He finished his PhD at Vanderbilt last October and was convinced by reports of further funding cuts to pursue a post-doc outside of the US.

I’m curious what Swiss academics think about the real possibility they will be inundated with US-trained scientists looking for post-docs and/or faculty positions as the funding environment continues to get worse in the US?  Is this already happening?

Response to “German Academics at Swiss Universities”

Fabian Klaber’s post about international professors prompted me to do a bit of reading into US university hiring.  I am woefully uneducated about the restrictions on international hiring, being a US citizen, and as a grad student I have little experience with those restrictions at a professor level.  Most of the international profs I know personally have become US citizens for a very important reason: NIH.

As a general rule, only US citizens can apply for grants from NIH (National Institutes of Health), and these competitive grants typically form the backbone of funding for biomedical research labs in academia.  I don’t know if similar restrictions apply to NSF or the Department of Defense grants, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  Since in the US system most biomedical science professors must come up with funds to support their research programs (and often their own salaries), one needs to be able to apply for grants.  It would be irresponsible to hire an international individual with the expectation that they support their labs with grants when the major granting agencies won’t even allow them to apply.

The international hiring question is further complicated by immigration restrictions.  While I’m even less familiar with German-Swiss immigration matters, I’d be surprised if they were more complicated than the US.  I realize travel is very easy between countries in Europe, but what about working visas and obtaining citizenship for employment?  A quick Google search showed many large US universities have an entire department devoted to handling international students, staff and faculty.  That should be an indication of the complexity of US international hiring!

I realize Fabian’s post (and question about the US) was less about the administrative difficulties and more about the social implications of preferentially hiring native citizens versus internationals.  However one can’t ignore the contribution that administrative red-tape can play in decision making!  I have heard the complaints about waiting for visa applications and paperwork hassles for international hires, and major complications can occur when a position is for a limited amount of time and a visa is delayed.  For a more social perspective on US international professor hiring, I found this article interesting, but the comments even more so.  The example of requiring more documented justification for international hires over American hires appears to be common in many US universities, but not necessarily required by law.

I’m personally on the fence.  I agree that the goal for most professor hiring should be to get the best person for the job regardless of citizenship – but that means many things.  Not only should that person be an expert in their field with experience and a track-record that demonstrates their commitment, but they should also integrate into the culture of the particular institution and be in agreement with the overall goals of that institution.  However I can also understand why people support favoring native citizen hires over internationals from a standpoint of investing in one’s own country.  If you are a citizen of a particular country, that means that you have lived in that country for some time, have paid taxes and presumably contributed to your country in some manner.  Thus the “country” should give back to you by investing in your career and future, versus someone who is not a citizen and may not be invested (socially and financially) in the country long term.

I think the issue may be overly simplified into the question “is favoring a resident nationality over other nations is an act of bias or an act of patriotism?”  In reality, search committees are rarely faced with “apples to apples” comparisons between international and native citizen applicants, greatly complicating the role nationality can play in selection.

From my very brief research, it appears hiring international professors is as fraught a topic in the US as it is in Switzerland, and is unlikely to be resolved in the current environment where global exchange is increasing and PhDs continue to be over-produced.

PS-  I would like to acknowledge that this post is a big oversimplification itself…after only a couple of hours reading on the web, I realized I could probably do an entire PhD dissertation on this topic to answer Fabian’s question!