Free education, costly option: why I don’t think education should be free

I see the discussion of tuition fee in the air again and having just had a chat with a Norwegian friend who was enrolled in the same study program at the same time as I was in Oslo but opted to transfer to study in the US, I suddenly found something to reflect on and something to discuss.

The current practice in Norway is that education is free, for both Norwegians and international students. The admission is easy for Norwegians unless they want to get into one of the very few highly competitive study programs such as medicine at UiO. Other than these very few programs, a Norwegian student never need to think what to do if his application get rejected. Money matters only if he wants to study in the private universities such as BI (still not expensive) or abroad. For international students, it is slightly more difficult, in the sense that you have to prove you have enough money to survive, which sounds reasonable. However, just to get admitted into a study program is much easier in Norway than in many other countries because Norwegians have the philosophy that education should be available to everyone, not be a privilege to limited few.

The consequence is … For most Norwegian students, because the education is “free”, they don’t have to think too much before they decide what to study. When they study, they don’t talk much about jobs after graduation. That sounds too materialistic, isn’t it? They come to party and the generous student benefit, the government sponsored student loans and the abundant (well-paid) part time job opportunities keep them on campus for years. On the other side, in countries where education is expensive, for example, the US, students may have their whole career planned before they start their undergraduate study since they have to make the pay-back plan for their student loan.

For international students, except those who study subjects for which some Norwegian institutes are truly a world leader, such as marine engineering, most of the students come without much academic ambition. Some come when they can’t get or afford a place anywhere else. Some come to experience a different climate and nature. Among the Chinese students in Oslo, some go shopping of luxury handbags once every month in Paris. Their choice of Norway is at least partly based on the Schengen agreement and partly on the easy admission and zero rejection rate of visa application. Some come to deliver newspapers… In a word, I rarely meet people who are academically ambitious.

Since both Norwegian students and international students are not highly motivated, the classrooms can sometimes be very quiet. In the economics classes I went to, lecturers see no point of encouraging discussion and debate, not to mention competition. This might offer the freedom to the students who know what they want, but to the majority of students who need a kick in the ass, the wake-up call never comes and they graduate to be the kind of people that can work in a same position for 20 years.

For the country to be competitiveness in the long term without the unpredictable winning of oil lottery, it needs competitive work force which comes from world-class education. That is why I believe the education should not be free, the admission should be much more strict, and the quality of education should be constantly examined and improved. What if smart but poor (especially non-Norwegian) kids can’t afford it? Simple. Giving them a scholarship rather than waiving the tuition for everybody. And … the awarding of scholarship should be performance-based rather than politically correctness.

Country comparison: it is not what you eat, but how you cook, that makes the difference

In my first few years in Norway, I had been asked this question many times: what do you think is the biggest difference between life in Norway and life in China. I guess Norwegians expected answers like freedom and human rights, I usually answered, “Oh, I have to cook!”

Having said that, I didn’t mean I am going to leave the conversation, but I meant in every day I have to cook. This is the most significant change in my life since I came to Norway. At University of Oslo, they used the same text books as we used in Shanghai and student life is no more than studying, socialising and part time working (a minor difference is my friends in China take part time jobs in banks, consulting firms and other MNEs while my friends in Norway take part time job in local shoe shops, cafes and restaurants). Since I didn’t speak Norwegian, I didn’t even qualify for these jobs, so cooking was the biggest challenge in life.

My dear mother land, China, is most famous for its long history (of making complicated and delicious dishes). In this case, stereotyping plays for us. If a Chinese living abroad failed to make a good living in any profession, s/he can always open a Chinese restaurant. However, in fact, not every Chinese can cook. I can’t. I have never cooked a single dish before I came to Norway. And this is not rare among my friends in China. We had always been students and school canteen offers tens of dishes everyday at student-friendly prices. And to those who don’t believe China treats Muslims well, I just want to say that in every school canteen I have been to in Shanghai (which is not a Muslim city), there is a section for Muslin food. And there are numerous small and cheap restaurants near campus, offering even more choices. Student dormitories have bedroom and bathrooms, but never ever a kitchen. When we start working, we barely move our meal places from small and cheap restaurants around the campus to fancier restaurants in CBDs.

So when I came to Norway and faced the fact that everybody cooks, I was hugely disappointed. So for a long while, I was vegetarian and even raw foodie, because those meals are easier to make: I just buy a pack of salad and open it and put the leaves on the plate. I obtained my proteins from nuts. Simple. However, smart as I am, I quickly found Norwegian food is not much more complicated than that. Matpakke is just bread slices + ham/cheese + some small decorations. And an ok dinner is potato + salad from package + oven-baked salmon. 15 minutes. Ding dong! Dinner is ready!

Having got used to these, I found it too much when I visited home and sat in front of a 10-course dinner. I felt that is too good for me. Chinese food can be very complicated. For example, a very common dish, “fish flavoured eggplant”, uses fish and many other spices just to give the eggplant a particular flavour. I always wonder what they do with the fish. Just to throw it away? Isn’t it too extravagant? This is not in line with Buddhism… And people order waiters or waitresses to do this or that for them and complain about the slightest imperfectness.

That put me into thinking. Chinese society has much more visible social inequality. Does that start from the kitchen? An average Norwegian spend 15 min making dinner for himself while a decent Chinese dinner takes at least an hour. If they are both… say IT consultants… and compete in the global job market. What should the Chinese do to reduce the time spent on making dinner? As economist, obviously the solution is economies of scales. Option 1: eat in a big family where one person cooks for a lot of persons and average time spent on cooking reduced. Option 2: eat out in a restaurant, but this only makes economic sense when your hourly rate is (much) higher than the hourly rate of the cook, otherwise, you’d better to cook and eat at home. Traditionally, Chinese intellectuals opted for option 1. So family was important. And since a lot of people are dinning together, who takes which seat is sensitive and hierarchy is created and etiquette has to be obeyed. Nowadays, young people opted for option 2 which means some people have to be cook, making those complicated dishes at a wage significantly lower than the IT consultant. This creates income gaps and social inequality.

To cook or not to cook, that not only affects how we eat, but also affects our mentality, work style and wallet size… Ambitious people to the East, happy medium people to the West… Well, there are outliers.

Gender equality: Shanghai vs Oslo

Norwegians are very proud of the fact that they always score on top of the world in terms of gender equality[i]. Women in general have more freedom in choosing what they want to do and who they want to be with than women in many other countries in the world. Women’s participation in the labor force is high. It had a female prime minister and is having another one right now, and so on. On the other side, people tend to think Chinese women are miserable. It is always in the news outside China that pregnant women in China take abortion once they know it is a girl. However, as a woman from Shanghai who has lived in Oslo for almost a decade, I think both these two pictures are over simplifying the situations and to guarantee equal treatments of two genders in work places is far more complicated than any current policies can take care of.

Let’s start with the Norwegian picture and see away from the nice statistics Norwegians provide. Three phenomena send out different voices. First, Norwegian women has much higher rate of sick leave than men and this gap is even increasing. This recently raised attention in the media and one of the highly likely explanations people come up with is: women take more share of the house work, still! Second, woman on average earn 85% of the salary as man in the same position earns even though it is written in the law that employees should not be discriminated by gender. This might be the result from that women are not very affirmative in salary negotiations and in work in general. So solutions from experts are: work like a man. Third, even with the famous gender quota requirement in board rooms in public companies, very few women are in top management positions, even fewer than in the U.S. where there is no such quota rule[ii] and worse still, Norwegian research shows that female leaders won’t help female employees[iii]. A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. Its walls are covered with portraits of prominent people in the Norwegian shipping industry. Among dozens of portraits, only one is of a woman and she has the only one that does not have the golden frame.

Gender Eq

Having been quite disheartened by the situation in Norway, I try to think back how things are in China. However, China is a huge country with very different cultures and unbalanced development. In general, Chinese women are so miserable as CNN tries to depict and Shanghainese woman are famous for being the boss at home.

There are many reasons for this. Historically, during the war time, the communist party needed soldiers, so female soldiers were and common. After 1949 when PRC was founded, again men and women were needed in building the new country. Mao has made the well-known quote that “women hold up half the sky”. As for Shanghai, which has always been a trading center rather than a manufacturing city where men are needed to do the heavy manual work. Women’s social status, as well as participation in job market, has always been high.

Politically, the one-child policy in China, at least in big cities like Shanghai, wiped out the boys’ privileged status in families. Since every family has only one child, the family has to put all its resources to that child regardless it is a boy or girl. In schools, if the girl is not treated same as a boy, the girl’s family will not let the school have an easy time since this is their only child.

Culturally, Shanghai is one of the first Chinese cities to open to the Western world. Men from Shanghai were told to be a “gentleman” by doing all the housework. Men give their salary to their wives and their wives decide what to buy for the family and return a small amount as pocket money to their men.

In all the schools I have been to in Shanghai, girls perform far better than boys. I studied economics in the best university in Shanghai. There were 120 students in the program, gender ratio being 1:1. At the end of the 4 years study, among the top 20 students, there was only one boy.

Does this support the argument that Shanghai beats Oslo in terms of gender equality? No. School is one thing and society at large is another. A few years after university, girls are in the new competition of who gets married first, who marries a trophy husband, who gets baby in an expensive private clinic first… Those boys who did not do every well in school, spent time thinking what they really want in life and went for it. Today, the richest or the most powerful people in China, or even in Shanghai, are still men.

Surprisingly, same could almost be said for Norway or Oslo. Norwegian women don’t care so much about marriage (cohabitation is a legal status in Norway with cleared defined rights close to marriage), but they care no less than Chinese women about men. In gyms, you can see girls immediately put on make-up once they are done with training and they spend long hours on their image as if a slightest mistake will cost them their boyfriend. In the freezing cold winger days, when Norwegian men are fully covered, Norwegian women are still wearing short skirts and walking on ice with high-heel shoes. In work places, women join men in jokes about sex like a man. Since I started working in shipping a couple of years ago, all jokes I heard at formal work-related dinners are directly about sex. Women might talk about what kind of men they want while men go directly to the topic. It is not my Chinese background that makes me uncomfortable, but it is the repeated jokes that made me bored.

In my attempt to understand these, I come to realize that even though Shanghai and Oslo are very different cities, behind those superficial observations, there are fundamental similarities and they come from our similar natures as human beings.

I see gender inequality has different levels and affects societies and human behaviors in different ways. It is first and foremost physical. Even among the siblings of the same parents, boys are bigger and stronger than girls. So it is hard to deny the physical difference between men and women. In places or jobs where physical strength is important, woman looks up to man for that. Neither Shanghai nor Oslo is at this stage. Secondly, two genders also differ in other important qualities which matter in modern world, such as intelligence and determination. Research has suggested that though the difference in average intelligence between genders is negligible, man’s intelligence has larger variance[iv] which means that the super smart and super stupid are more likely to be man. This might explain the fact that the greatest scientists in history are mostly men and in today’s academic world, more top researchers in science are men. However, most business jobs today, even at top management positions, don’t require top intelligence. In my view, it is the determination that plays a role. Women are more sensitive to small things in life and less determined to march to the final goal. Thirdly, the gender inequality is also biological. The hormones released during sex makes women feel attached to men while bring men pure enjoyment. This is why women in any culture care more about relationships than men in the same culture. Besides, during pregnancy and child-birth, hormones again make women feel more responsibility for their babies and consequently, care more about their family. Inevitably, the calculation between job and family is never the same for man and woman.

For the last two reasons, and maybe many other reasons, it is not simple to guarantee gender equality in work places. Companies can make arrangements to take care of employee’s human side (e.g. some Chinese companies offer days off or flexible days for woman during menstruation) , but absolute gender equality is not possible given our biological and psychological differences. It might actually be easier not to force gender equality like the quota system Norway used, but to understand the differences, to foster strengths and to circumvent weaknesses. And sometime, to be creative.