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Are University Graduates Indebted to Society?

This might be a slightly controversial idea. It arose recently in conversation, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

In Canada, do university graduates–particularly those with higher level degrees–have an obligation to work in their field for a period of time? All post-secondary education is signficantly subsidized. Society at large has paid for our education.

If you spend, say, seven years in school to become a lawyer, do you have a moral obligation to practice law for a few years, even if you hate it? If, after seven years of school, you suddenly leave law to become a surfing instructor for the rest of your life (and surfing instructors have only my admiration), do you owe your fellow Canadians anything?

Here’s a better example: you get a PhD in quantum physics, then decide you want to be a landscaper. Not only did Canada pay for 8 or 10 years of school, but you took somebody else’s spot who would have stayed a physicist (at least for a while).

Of course, I spent five years in theatre and writing school, and I work in the high-tech sector. I’m probably paying more taxes than most of my classmates in the theatre world, so society probably wanted me to shift professions.

I guess it’s a bit like living an unhealthy lifestyle when alternatives exist (that is, one has the time and opportunity to excerise, eat better, not smoke, whatever). Because we have universal healthcare, such a person becomes a greater burden on the system. In a sense, they’re being inconsiderate to the rest of the tax-paying public.

I’m not suggesting we punish the lawyers-turned-surfers or physicists-turned-landscapers. I’m just wondering if they should feel guilty.

11 Responses to “Are University Graduates Indebted to Society?”

  1. Andrea

    I don’t care if people change professions or never pursue a profession at all. I feel that Canadian society benefits from their pursuits in other ways. Surely their volunteering, parenting, lobbying, socializing and even hobbying (new word?) have spin-off effects. And with people changing careers so frequently, it’s bound to turn up in other aspects of their life. If they gave up quantum physics for being a scrapbook consultant, then they are probably contributing more as a scrapbook consultant. They probably would have never had passion in their quantum physics work. And hopefully we milked a lot out of them as research assistants, co-op students, interns, etc.

    However, I do care if they leave Canada and never come back. But how do you deal with talented people who leave? You can’t threaten them with extra tuition payments — they’ll never return. You can’t charge massive tuition or they won’t stay here to be research assistants during their PhDs and what-not. I think the way you deal with this is by funding English, theatre, writing, sports, culture, art, music, etc….and creating live-able cities. Then people will want to stay.

  2. Jamil Karim

    Yes, I agree.

    Although such could be the case that a lawyer may enter the field of real estate and become an agent.

    An agent who is better at developing contracts and letting both parties know of their obligations.

    That is still somewhat acceptable.

    The biggest lesson here is, I think.

    Don’t go to school unless you are sure that it will benefit you as a person.
    Ignore the theoretical benefits of higher wages, prestige that comes with the decree, or pleasing your parents.

    Go to school because it will make you a better person and help you to achieve your future goals.

    And yes, Give working in your field of study a shot for a significant period of time.

    Maybe we could have a clause at our Canadian Universities for post-graduate degrees that states “you must work in your field of study for a period of 12 months following your graduation”.

    For undergrads, it matters less as the field of study may not be as specialized.

    The only hope for those who decide to surf or landscape are the wicked throes of capitalism. The need for income for housing, goods, and services we can hope will eventually bring these people back into line.
    as long as we don’t subsidize everything ;)

  3. Jan Oberst

    Yep, I agree with you two!

    But I’m a bit skeptical if the society would benefit from the 12-month-period.

    Normally, you’re not studying some five years or more if you’re not interested in either the subject or the jobs with their income. So if you’re a smart guy you stop before graduation and switch majors or learn whatever you want.

    But I don’t think a lawyer who would rather want to take care of poverty or children in Africa would do a good job when you forced him to work as one.

    And I understand if a lot of graduates need some time off after they worked hard and long for their degrees. And I hope they’ll come back afterwards, grown personally but also with some new expertise – maybe a lawyer specialized on landscaping.
    But even if they didn’t they participate on the community. College isn’t just about the degree, you learn much more like structured thinking, better organization, you name it. Your brain is pushed every day (at least it should be). So maybe those graduates working as gardeners will make better parents and their children will become even better lawyers than their dad would have ever been, who knows?

    What’s kind of bad though is if people leave their country that paid some million bucks on their education and never come back. But once again – I think forcing people to stay against their will won’t help, too. There’s a big discussion about German doctors leaving for England or Holland because of the much much better payment and working conditions. So the state simply has to improve payment and reduce working hours. It’s a principle of the free market – but the German government doesn’t react because of the lack of money in health insurance system.

  4. richgold

    Alas, there’s the other side of the coin. A person goes to school, only to exit to a recession in the area they’ve just studied. (It’s happened to several nice people I know … a Librarian who turned to technical writing and business analysis, an Electrical Engineer who was Nortold shortly after graduating, and who’s currently works in a call centre to keep afloat, a Teacher who couldn’t find anything but sub work).

    If you’re going to suggest people should go into indentured servitude for the profession they chose, then there should be a job for them to go to.

  5. Jeff

    Really great question Darren.

    While post-secondary is subsidized, the amount that is coughed up by the individual is prohibitive at best. I think that, along with all the time and effort poured in to that education entitles the degree bearer to do whatever they feel like doing once they are finished school.

  6. Declan

    Is ones debt to the society that educated you just limited to financial debt? If a person studies for 10 years to become a brain surgeon then they may be able to pay back their financial debt to society in a couple of years, if they earn enough and pay enough in taxes. But hasn’t society invested time and planning into them as well? You cant force someone to stay against their will but are they not morally obliged to pay back society with a quota of pro-bono style work for people whose income doesn’t allow them to purchase the services of the person they helped educate through their taxes? Like all things moral its hard to enforce.

    Also, on a more removed level, does a company have an moral obligation to a state for the earlier education of their employees? For example if a person working for a company invents a cure for cancer would the company have a moral obligation to share that cure with the society that educated their scientist? After all a person whose taxes helped pay to educate the scientist could die because the company charges too much for the cure.

  7. Kirsten

    I’m strongly of the opinion that no education is ever a waste. I think that even if you abandon your degree at some point after graduating, it still had some key factor in making you the person you are. Maybe the physicist who becomes a landscaper will make a far, far better contribution to society as a landscaper than they ever would have as a physicist – but they never would have known that unless they’d suffered through their degree first.

    Or maybe they’ll find some way of applying their physics knowledge to landscaping and come up with a more efficient mower. By allowing people to flit between careers, we allow for some random creative potential to enter the mix.

  8. Darren James Harkness

    I think you are neglecting an important fact when it comes to graduate work, in that graduate students are contributing to the academy while they are studying.

    First, you have the dissertation itself, which is intended to broaden scholarship in a given subject area (rather than regurgitate existing scholarship). That alone is a return on the country’s investment in the student (whether that dissertation be on mating habits of the mongoose or a new approach to structural architecture).

    Second, many graduate students are also given teaching assignments. In the sciences, this often manifests itself in TA/Lab monitor positions. However, in the arts it more often than not manifests itself as primary instructors (case in point: my partner, who is finishing her PhD, teaches a full-year first-year English course every year).

    In addition, many students work with faculty as research assistants and often cowrite scholarly articles or conference papers.

    So to say that they should have to ‘contract’ for a specific period of time to repay society is a little spurious — they already do, in that they are expected to create scholarly output during the tenure of their studies. The real reason many post-graduate students break away from academia has a lot more to do with the severe lack of funding for post-graduate positions than the students’ love for their field (for example, my previously-mentioned partner undertook a “practice” work search last year. There were 4 positions open in all of North America for someone in her field).

  9. Richard

    I disagree with the sentiment that people should stay in Canada after they get their degree. Is there not value in, using the example of a newly-trained doctor, saving lives in underdeveloped countries? Besides, what percentage of graduates do that? And is not talent from abroad more than making up for those who leave?

    Also what percentage of people don’t work in their field, anyway? Darren, you self-identify as such, but are you part of the majority (or even a large minority)?

    For further reading, I suggest Robert Allen’s 1998 analysis of British Columbia graduates: “First, undergraduate university education is a profitable investment for almost all students in British Columbia. Second, undergraduate education is also a profitable investment for the treasury when the tuition and, particularly, the extra taxes paid by graduates are set against the costs incurred by the government in operating the universities. Third, since undergraduate education is profitable for both the student and the treasury, it is a profitable investment for the province as a whole. It generates more economic growth than it costs. Consequently, university education should be expanded. ”

    See also his discussion of humanities majors graduates.

  10. Laura

    Great topic, you’ve got an interesting conversation going Darren. My take is that what society needs is people who love what they do. People who love what they do, tend to do a better job, they contribute more revenue to the economy because they can generate more business if they speak with a sense of passion about their work (people will be drawn to hiring them), and they are far more productive with their time.

    Also, people’s goals and interests change over time. In theory, I agree with Jamil’s comment “Don’t go to school unless you are sure that it will benefit you as a person. Ignore the theoretical benefits of higher wages, prestige that comes with the degree, or pleasing your parents. Go to school because it will make you a better person and help you to achieve your future goals.” But in practice, how can an 18 year old grade 12 student have possibly been exposed to all the things that could potentially interest them? Take me for example. At 18, I loved the tourism industry and so I thought being a hotel manager would be a great idea. So I majored in hospitality management. I still love tourism but I’ve learned that I hate management, and I discovered that I also love marketing. My boyfriend thought he wanted to be a computer programmer for the rest of his life when he was 18. Turns out he’s also a first-rate magician. Who could see that coming?

    And finally, there’s a few points about what society gets out of university students. Firstly, I believe strongly that university provides students with an overview of the field they’ve studied but by no means makes them a seasoned expert. They just have an area of knowledge. What university teaches them is HOW TO LEARN. How to research, analyse, strategise, and when to question facts. And that skill can be carried into any field. There’s also the fact that university students, if they work while putting themselves through school, also pay taxes. And they contribute to the economy while in school – they go shopping and eat out just like the rest of us and pay taxes on their purchases. So it’s not just the rest of society’s taxes contributing to the subsidized portion of their tuition. It’s THEIR OWN taxes contributing also. And lastly, we really need to look at the whole picture, not at the individual. On average, if you have 100,000 students in a year studying 100 different fields, at the end of their education, you’ll probably have about 100,000 people working in 100 different fields. Who cares if some of the individuals switch around the specific industry they are in because that makes them happier?

  11. alexis

    Great post, great discussion. I agree with a lot of comments here. I also agree that every thing you learn helps you and makes you better at what you do. For example, my roommate trained as a chemist, and then as a community developer. Now she’s in law school. Her background in these two fields has made her a more well rounded, sympathetic lawyer who can apply her science knowledge and community development knowledge in her law practice.

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