Friday, March 26, 2010

Merit points - a way to keep middle class schools pure?

In the last post I tried to explain the proposal to charge foreigns form outside the European Union with tuition fees. I also argued that it was unlucky, since it is unfair, and would would make Swedish universities less internationalized, in a time when they should become more.

Tuition fees for non-EU students is the wrong thing to do, but in isolation the arguments are somehow intelligible. Swedish universities do lose out one a lot of money from students who are rich enough to pay, but not smart enough to get scholarships, compared to universities in the Netherlands, the UK or elsewhere. And it is quite a problem for the vision of Europe that education costs so much in some places and is free elsewhere. Even more problmatic is that the relation between costs and high quality education is seldom straight forward.

Tuition fees, however, is just a part of a vision of education that is shared not only by the government but by vast layers in the Swedish political class. A vision that runs contrary to teachers' professional experience and pedagogical science, as well as liberalism as defined above: "to enable individuals to make their own choices". To Swedish readers I strongly reccomend Johan Ernestams article in the last issue of Pedagogiska Magasinet (Nr 1, 2010). The rest of you will have to keep reading. 

This vision rests on the conviction that there is no pedagogical science, that children do what you tell them to -not what you do, and that the Internet Age needs schools as they looked 100 years ago.

With a remarkable succesful economy Sweden has managed to increase its industrial output with 65% since 1993 , and a number of internet giants are Swedish inventions - like Skype, Spotifyand Vobbler. But in spite of this, our school pupils have continued to score worse and worse in international tests like the PISA. It is rather unclear what this kind of studies actually measure, and even more unclear what relationship test results have to do with society more in general, but they have deeply unnerved our politicians. Maybe the issue at stake is not national wealth but national pride... more and more often I find myself wondering if I am writing about Sweden or some Balkanesque country with a less solid reputation.

For sure one can find reason to worry. In a globalized world, the competition for the word's best jobs is tough, and being born in Sweden is maybe not the asset it used to be. There are millions of ambitious students in Asian, African, Latin American and East-European countries that aspire for posts that used to belong to the western intelligentia. But the answer from the Swedish government has been blunt. More discipline and specialisated schools. Pick out kids who show talents while they are young and put them in spetznaz schools. Of course, it does not work, and every year the debate and the reforms get more desperate.

The latest reform, that has been severly critizised from all kind of professionals, and most likely will be judged as a break of EU principles for discriminating foreign students, has been carried out with a breathtaing incompetence. The idea is to give merit points to students who pupils who study certain subjects in school - Mathematics, English and Modern languages. These merit points will facilitate access to university, and pupils witll thus be encuouraged to study these subjects. Of course Swedish authorities can not assign merit points to foreign documents, so one result is that Swedish and foreign studens will have to compete in two different quotas. The quota for foreign students in popular programmes like psychology, where almost all Swedish applicants have top grades, will be small or non-existing. Which makes a lot of sense in one way - it would be very disencouraging for the Swedish students if they are not accepted to the best educations, after having studied the courses that Father State has chosen to give merit points. But it is hard to see it as fair competition with foreign born students.

Theoretically, I am not against the idea to encourage pupils to study certain subjects. After all society might lack German speakers, for example. But the task to choose what subjects are more important than others is not an easy one. However, how the responsible politicians could fail to see that their proposal discriminates foreign students is a mystery. It is less so, if we se the proposal in connection with the introduction of tuiton fees. A pattern is then discernible. The critizised and seemingly haphazard reforms all serve the same purpose - to safeguard a certain group of people's access to higher education in Sweden.  That group can be defined as Swedish youth studying theoretical programmes in high school.

It has been a peculiarity of the Swedish school system that everyone who finished school had the competence to apply for University. The politicians are now about to change that. From 2011 on, if things go as planned, only pupils studying theorietical programms will automatically be qualified for university studies. In addition to this, the same group of pupils will get the merit points.

Who will not get the merit points? One group that were already mentioned above, are foreign students. Another group is Swedish pupils in practical programmes, but for them the biggest problem is rather that many of them will finish school without qualifications for university. They might not bother too much about that when they are 18, but if they change their mind ten years later, the threshold will be much larger than it is for those who finish practical programmes in the current system. And for a liberal society it is to be problematic if there is no easy way for a carpenter to become an engineer. In today's economy, that requires so much mroe knowledge from end-users and the rank and file in companies, it is also a problem if intelligent people stay away from practical educations by default, because they want to be qualified for university. We need intelligent, skilled and qualified carpenters.

Another group that that gets a harder life with this system are those pupils studying theoretical programmes who have another native tongue than Swedish. They will get punished for studying their native language, as this is something they must choose in stead of a modern language. The only way they cang et merit points for studying their native language is if they apply to study it at university. But courses in immigrant's languages are neither popular, nor crowded, so having these merit points will be more or less useless. No one comes from Bulgaria to Sweden to study Arabic or Persian... 

For example, if you are Persian and wants to study for a degree in civil engineering - studying French or Italian will give you extra merit points, while studying Persian will not. Even more difficult to understand is that studying French on the highest level will actually give more merit points than spending these hours on studying Persian, even if you want to study Persian in University. It is short sighted, stupid and racist by Swedish society to not encourage pupils with natural access to several languages to spend time on developing the skills that such a background needs, skills that Swedish society today is craving for.

The merit points are further problematic, since a pupil need to make the right choices already in the early school years in order to come out with maximum points when he or she finishes high school. For example, if you don't choose to study a modern language in school (e.g. replace it with extra Swedish if you don't have Swedish as your native language, or study your native language), or if you change your mind and study German in school and Spanish in high school, you have no chance to study modern languages at the highest levels, the levels that will give you the most merit points. As the pupils tend to be too young to realize the full consequenss of their choices, the responsibility of choice right lies with the parent. In a liberal society it is very problematicv if your life depend more on your parents' choices than your own.

Non-swedish parents who realize this face an epic dilemma - should they choose to let their child study its native tongue, and take extra hours in Swedish - as the pedagogical and psycological scientific consensus would suggest them to do, or take a gamble that the kid will learn this on his or her own, and take courses that give merit points - as the Swedish state expects them to do?

But also ethnical Swedish parents will have to thnk twice or trice about their child's education, since their child's learning carreer will be founded already in the earliest school years. That is what I will take up in the next post


kjij said...
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Maladets! said...

Comment removed as I judged it an advertisement.

If you have questions, I would be glad to discuss over email.