University tuition fees, and private schools

Here’s what the government is currently saying about the change in university fees:

  1. Allowing universities to charge students anywhere between £6000 to £9000 will create competition, leading to better value and higher quality education.
  2. These fees – which can’t be paid upfront – shouldn’t be considered like normal kinds of debt since they don’t need repaying until you earn £21k, and the rate of repayment for most people will be lower than it is now, plus an awful lot of students will never repay their fees.

In an apparent surprise to the government, most universities are charging the maximum £9000, which was expected for the likes of Oxbridge but not for non-redbrick universities. What’s happened is that practically all universities have decided to signal quality through high prices, meaning that no-one wants to lower their fees and make their degrees look cheap and nasty. It also doesn’t help that due to other government spending cuts, fees of around £7500 are required just to maintain current funding levels.

But maybe students will rebel and demand for lower fees at ‘worse’ universities? I think not*, precisely because the government will – eventually – convince students that going to university is a good thing and that the up-to-£27k fees they’ll pay aren’t ‘real’ debt; in which case, it really doesn’t matter how much a degree costs, since you’ll never have to pay it back if you don’t get a high salary – and if you do, a few grand here or there is hardly going to make a difference. So much for a market for universities.

*Unless there was real competition for university-like entities that were much cheaper, say £3k a year, and demonstrably more effective. But unfortunately it’s not easy to set up new universities, so that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Another mantra of the government is that despite raising fees to £9k a year, they’re still worth paying because graduates earn so much more over their lifetimes. There’s no doubt that historically, graduates have earned £100k more than non-graduates over their lifetimes, but there’s clearly no guarantee this will continue. As any investment ad will say, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.

And when you consider that:

  • Far more people are earning degrees
  • There are more and more ways for smart people to earn money and have a fulfilling job without university (just look at the proliferation of startup-founder dropouts these days)
  • The skills and knowledge that many, if not most, graduates pick up are not, in fact, terribly useful in actually performing a job (which wasn’t a problem back when a degree was a sign of smarts/background, but no longer)

then I don’t believe that all grads will continue to have such an edge on non-grads, certainly not to the degree they used to. Yes, university is meant to be more than a job training service, but unfortunately that is how a lot of people justify it; it’s not as if the government is suggesting that students pay £27k in order to become better and more enlightened citizens.

On Private Schools

The Guardian reported today that six private schools are in line to become ‘free schools’ from September, and spun this is being largely a bad thing:

Their bids are controversial, not least because if they are successful, parents who had opted to pay school fees for their children’s education will suddenly find themselves gifted it by the government.

Around 7% of children in the UK are at fee-paying schools, with an average spend per pupil that’s significantly higher than what state school pupils receive. If you look at Mumsnet, then you’ll see plenty of complaining about having to ‘pay twice’ to educate children privately (first in taxes to state schools, and then to the private school) so it’s easy to understand why some parents are pretty pleased that they’re saving money.

I can also why other parents might be unhappy that these previously privately-educated pupils are now being ‘gifted’ education for free; in the short term, it could easily cause a shift in resources to previously-private schools, hurting state schools. But of course, private schools that become free schools can’t be anywhere near as selective about their intake, which ought to help everyone.

In the long run, I don’t think it’s healthy to have a society where hundreds of thousands of people can effectively opt out of state education. Whether it’s transport or housing or healthcare, when you have the rich segment of the population simply walling themselves off from everyone else, it’ll only result in resentment and bitterness on both sides; the rich unhappy about paying taxes for benefits they don’t use, and everyone else envious of their unreachable status. Just look at America.

Better to create education systems that everyone wants to send their kids to. Canada, which beats the pants off the UK in the PISA ranking, has a far lower proportion of kids going to fee-paying schools. It can be done.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it – everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

– Neal Gabler, The New American Dream

The American Dream is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realising perfection. Social games and the wider gamification movement promise to help us in this pursuit of perfection, whether or not we desire it.

Until the next extension...
…Until the next extension

Animal Crossing was one of my favourite games on the DS, a vibrant simulation of a friendly village full of activities. After running some errands for my neighbours in the virtual village and earning some cash to buy furniture for my house and pay off the mortgage (yes, that’s the word they used), I realised that the implicit goal of the game was to – basically – buy as much furniture and have as big a house as possible.

Sure, you could discover stuff washed up on the beach and dig for dinosaur bones and go fishing, but it all became so much easier if you had the best kit – which cost money to buy and needed a place to store. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this, because it seemed like an interesting challenge.

It wasn’t until I was harvesting my optimally-packed apple trees (which I’d planted in place of the village’s native, low-yielding trees) and pulling up some weeds that I had the chilling realisation that the world of Animal Crossing could be made perfect. When you pull out weeds, you don’t get dirt flying everywhere; when you rearrange your furniture, you don’t chip the walls or spread dust around. If you put in enough time, you can make your own perfect world in Animal Crossing. There will be not a pixel out of place.

Certainly Animal Crossing wasn’t the first game to simulate a perfectible, human-scale world, but it was one of the most popular. I eventually gave up on Animal Crossing when I realised that continually expanding my house and paying off my mortgage wasn’t my idea of fun, but I still find myself occasionally playing its spiritual child, Cityville, even after I swore off it. While Cityville didn’t have any weeds, its sibling, Frontierville, did and it gave off the same smell of perfectibility, as did The Sims; sure, your Sims might occasionally leave dirty plates and vomit around the house, but it’s nothing that a few clicks can’t solve.

TS Characters The Sims Maid 06
No Mr. Muscle needed here

There is a simple reason why Animal Crossing and Frontierville and The Sims are ‘perfectible’ worlds – it’s because good computer games tend to be easier to make and more fun to play when they have clear rules and processes, and when they don’t have to keep track of too many variables. If you wanted to simulate the growth and removal of weeds more accurately, with the spread of roots and the influence of rain and the use of weedkiller, then it’d eat up a lot more of your game development budget for little return – so I don’t think there’s any sinister agenda going on here. It’s just about having fun; hopefully no-one is mistaking The Sims for real life.

The problem is that when you take the conventions of games like RPGs and simulations and you apply them to the real world, you end up with something that feels like but is not actually a description of the real world. While I can set myself some tasks in Chore Wars to scrub the garden table and mop the floors, no amount of repetitions will get rid of the nasty stain on the table or the bits of dirt ingrained into the floor – unlike in game worlds, where perfection can always be realised given enough effort.

This isn’t is a flaw in Chore Wars since it has the reasonably limited goal of encouraging you and your friends to do chores, but it is a flaw of the gamification movement, which basically says that if we apply game mechanics to the real world, we can and will transform it into a better place.

It’s a seductive message – who doesn’t want to improve the world? Who doesn’t like games these days? And I agree that gamification has a lot of value – in a limited form – by motivating people to achieve specific and well-understood goals like eating healthily or exercising well. The problem is that games have always, out of necessity, been a very simplified and abstract simulation of the real world, and that we just can’t expect the real world to behave like our game worlds.

By extending the simple algorithms of games to the real world and abstracting complex and non-perfectible problems as things to be ‘solved’ with a tick box, gamification can create a veneer that makes all of those messy problems appear perfectible. There isn’t just one solution or even one hundred solutions to some problems – there might be as many different solutions as there are people in the world. Sometimes we might not know when we’ve solved a problem or made any progress; and sometimes there just are no solutions to a problem. It’s hard to see how the conventions of games – conventions designed to be fun and relatively easy to code – can cover all these contingencies without becoming as complicated and subtle and unpredictable as, well, life itself.

Some gamification advocates might call this pessimistic or worse – an unfortunately common tactic used in place of proper debate – but I simply see it as being realistic. There’s genuine value in applying game mechanics to certain problems and activities in the real world, but by overpromising and overhyping the potential of games, the only result can be disillusion and frustration.

Screen shot 2011-04-09 at 14.05.00
Just my opinion, is all

The reason why the new American Dream is so chilling is because imposes practically unachievable goals and ultimately destructive desires upon us all (I’m including the entire rich world here). It distracts us from examining our own lives and deciding what we want ourselves in favour of buying more and more stuff.

Gamification holds out the promise of achieving those goals. It tells us that if you play the right games with enough enthusiasm and persistence, then you can have a perfect life and make a perfect world – at least, according to the game, if not necessarily in reality.

I’m sure that many games that seek to improve our lives and the world will work, to an extent. But many will not, whether through poor design or badly-constructed goals. We all need to be careful about games that promise to change our lives. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined game is not worth playing.