The purpose of education

There are different views about the purpose of education. Here are three approaches.

The first one is a pure economic one where education is seen as important in terms of developing knowledge, skills and improving work productivity. The benefits of education are considered in terms of increased productivity through jobs and remuneration. People choose education based on expected return of their education in economic terms.

This view is a pure instrumental one. It assumes that people know in advance completely all future jobs and salaries that they can command as a result of their education, and that people are rational enough to gather such information about the future, rank them and decide to undertake education accordingly.

This is highly improbable and quite unrealistic. At best, people are guessing about these outcomes and in shifting economies, for example from labour-based to automation, or in declining economies, such guesses can be quite irrational.

Although there is nothing wrong with taking on a return-on-investment view of education, it would be interesting to consider other non-economic ones.

From a policy perspective, if education is to be evaluated purely based on instrumental benefits, it can lead to unjustified discrimination in providing education. Is education for those that are disposed to be employed more worthwhile than education for those that may not be disposed to employment for no fault of their own e.g. those with disabilities?

The second approach focuses on the right to education. This is the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It considers that every human being must be able to acquire adequate education for its intrinsic value rather than instrumental benefits of economic returns.

But in practice, right is not actually and universally guaranteed. It is also complicated by foundational principles and administration. Is it legal or moral rights? Is it the responsibility of the government, the sector, the institution, or at the individual level e.g. teacher, student, principal etc? Often, these rights conflict at various levels.

Even if rights are enacted, the opportunities and processes of schooling themselves can lead to discriminatory application thereby preferencing certain groups and marginalising others. Do English texts in literacy curriculum discriminate against students from non-English speaking background who may not have access to the contexts in which those texts were written?

The third approach is the capability approach. It considers education to be a basic capability because education is important in itself and is useful in increasing opportunities in one’s life.

The capability approach sees education as developing the person as an ends not means to jobs or employment. In other words, education enables human flourishing in its entirety and keeping in mind all aspects that would impact a person’s opportunities in life.

The benefits of education are about expanding people’s choices and freedom to choose the kind of life they want to live.

So, if by having a university degree, a person has increased their opportunities and ability to choose things that they want to do as they value, then they have increased their capability.

But if by having a university degree, the person has narrowed their pathway with less opportunities and ability or freedom to choose the things they want to do and be that they consider valuable, then they have not increased their capability. Although if the narrower track provides higher remuneration which accord with their want, than that would also be considered in the capability equation.

The capability approach puts the person at the centre of their education. They are in charge because ultimately, they are considering the benefits of education according to their own values, rather than others’ values.

In application, this approach is difficult to implement at a policy level because of its multifaceted considerations. But certainly, for every one of us who are living in our everyday life, it is worth the thought.

Does your education enhance your capability?


The paradox of democracy

The recent Australian federal election result reveals the paradox of democracy in a world of economic decline and social inequality.

Almost all Queenslanders voted for the Coalition government because they were promised continuation of the coal mine industry that would provide jobs – labelled as pursuit of aspiration albeit seen through the veil of economy. This was posited against the threat of the Labor Party’s stripping away the coal industry and thus a future of no jobs. This so-called choice that Queenslanders took up have been said as reasonable because they were voting for economic survival.

But here is the problem, under capitalism, the burden of survival is put upon the people whose autonomy and agency are hailed through their capacity for employment. Yet this capacity is based purely on their past experience and past or existing conditions. In order for them to continue to make good of such capacity, these conditions have to continue to exist. In other words, economic survival is about being dependent on the conditions in which those past experiences were enabled which, for the Queenslanders, is the coal industry. Thus, the Coalition’s claim of ensuring a continuation of coal industry created that perceived opportunity structure for survival – a survival that necessitates the maintenance of exiting conditions.

At the same time, those at the higher end of socioeconomic percentile – those who own capital like property – also rely on past or existing conditions in order to maintain their status, which are tax breaks through negative gearing or franking credits. These people also voted for the Coalition in order to ensure such conditions continue to exist so as to maintain their economic position, also termed as aspirational people.

Both groups, whether at the lower or higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, are caught in the structures that created the conditions that put them in their respective positions in the first place. In fact, we are all caught in these structures, but in a declining economy, those at opposing ends of socioeconomic groups perceive the needs to maintain their status quo much more than others and any claim to maintain existing conditions that address these groups would be most effective. That is why the Coalition campaign was so effective because they struck at the perceived needs of these groups.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. Rather than creating a platform where people can address their real concerns with the government, democracy has effectively let people to “unconsciously” maintain their respective socioeconomic position without knowing that they are “subjects” of the structures that put them there and construct their choice in ways that make them think they have a choice.

It is not that democracy is not worthwhile, but democracy only works to produce its desired effect of common good when all people are on even ground to make “real” choice. The paradox of democracy is that in conditions of heighted inequality, it can be used as a tool for the State to create false perception of its regime – as Foucault terms “a regime of truth” – thereby creating conditions in which the State can maintain their political legitimacy. The creation of false perceptions is what the Australian media calls Morrison’s effective campaigning. Or it is just simply that sowing fear is easy because existing structures have conditioned people into accepting what they see as choice. In fact, this is how authoritarian states operate, for example in Singapore, China or Vietnam where economic prosperity is the conditions too appealing to forego in exchange for real democracy.

This is where Marx is wrong in proposing that capitalism is unsustainable because at some point economic inequality would lead to people’s revolt. He was basing his thoughts on the morality principle of common good whereas the reality of capitalism has seen entrenched individualism in ways that makes it incredibly difficult for any political Party to prosecute a vision of common good as opposed to individual good.


The Meaning of Knowledge

The term “knowledge economy” is often used to denote the current world that we live in; moreover, to emphasise the value of higher education. Underpinning this concept is the idea that knowledge can be acquired and traded as goods in an economy often seen though the claims of jobs and employment as outcomes of education.

The direct assignment of education to jobs as a causal premise, or the value of education seen through jobs is so deeply embedded in society that it becomes the norms. Schools where everyone not only career advisers spruce jobs and careers as the goals of post-school education, or parents on Saturday soccer grounds who speak about how much they are pleased when their children are asked to develop a marketing plan as a university assignment rather than writing essays, or the prevalence of entrepreneurship as a subject to be taught at schools or universities.

This phenomenon can be said to be symptomatic of capitalism, where education is synonymous with the labour market. The phenomenon is so prevalent that it becomes an objective structure where people no longer question but assume their being and doing within this market. It begs three questions:

First, does knowledge exist in itself or is it attached to something – a person perhaps – in order for it to be tradeable?

Second, if it is attached to a person for it to have currency, then by trading it away through a labour market, does the person then no longer owns that knowledge?

Third, if the worth of the person lies in the knowledge that they hold which can only be measured through employment returns such as high wage, does that mean education is a means rather than an ends of the person?

Intuitively, one would say yes to the first question, no to the second question. As to the third question, it is probable that people would like to think that they are not merely educated so that they can fill a job but that there is a purpose in that job which defines their being and doing. I wonder how many people actually feel that as they grind through their daily jobs.

My book “International Graduate Returning to Vietnam” questions whether education should serve merely an instrumental value of employment or an enabler in people’s capability to do and be as they have reason to do and be. I suggest the idea of a knowledge society is more appealing than a knowledge economy.

A knowledge society marks citizenship as the value of education. Two ideas are central to citizenship: education is about knowledge for the world, that is education has value for the people in the society that they live in, not what they can return to themselves; education also has value in relation to what people do and produce in that world that count for them and for society, which is more than material benefits for personal interests.

This emphasis on “value” in and for the world that people live in necessarily invoke reflections about what people do and be, and why they should value these doings and beings. Only when we can reflect on the things that shape and drive us rather than assume we are merely players in a game, that we can be and live the worth of knowledge.

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Cuba Casa Particulaire

Casa particulaire is a type of accommodation in Cuba. Guests rent a room in someone’s house for a fee. The owner usually lives in the house and prepares breakfast and sometimes dinner if the guest requests. This concept of renting out a spare room in your house in return for money is everywhere in most parts of the world like Airbnb or couch surfing. But it is only a recent idea in Cuba.

Casa particulaire means private house. “Private” is a new term and practice in Communist Cuba. There is something oddly paradoxical about the concept of “private house”. Surely all houses are private, but if private refers to privatisation – that is individuals selling their property to the public then is that house still a private thing? Perhaps it is only a play of words but words shape discourse.

During my recent visit to Cuba, I stayed at a few casa particulaires. In Havana, the casa particulaire was run like an enterprise. The owners had two casa within walking distance of each other. One casa had four rooms, and the other, where the owners lived, had about seven rooms on three floors. All rooms had private bathroom and shower. The houses were beautiful with marble floors and ornate Spanish column structure. I stayed in the smaller house and had my own keys. It was wonderful except for the internet, which was turned on and off, mostly off.

My casa particulaire in Trinidad had a similar “business” ambience. The room was separate from the main living quarters of the family with a separate laneway for entry and exit to the house. It felt very private!

The casa particulaire in Santiago de Cuba was most like living with a Cuban family, mainly because meals were served at the dinner table which was in the owner’s living room and there was no separate access. This was wonderful as I had many opportunities to talk with the owner and her daughter who could speak English quite well.

I was curious about the types of people who own casa particulaire given that the majority of Cubans live on government handouts and rations and everyone had a house to live in. All of my hosts had something in common. They all had relatives overseas, either in the US or Canada to fund their casa particulaire business. Indeed, one host told me they could not have done anything without remittances from overseas.

So, do Cubans benefit from casa particulaire? The owners, people with capital funded from offshore, I presume are those that benefit financially. Is this capitalism in its core, where the economy only exists for few people who can access the market and gain benefit from it? What does this mean for the rest of Cubans? Does this create social stratification between those who have the means to make money and those that do not?

There are only four communist countries in the world today. China and Vietnam have already embedded capitalism and open themselves to the world. Is Cuba heading the same direction? For political economists particular in comparative development, it seems an inevitable pathway to progress. As I reflect on Cuba and her frozen in time beauty and dilapidation, I wonder whether she will resist capitalism or choose to do it in the Cuban way, slowly and in the moment!

Stay tuned, I will include some excerpts or narrations from the book in future blogs. Follow me on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn if you would like to be notified of my blogs.


Insider and Outsider

My research has largely focused on Vietnam. Vietnam presents a great sociological project because Vietnamese society is so complex. Vietnam is layered with much contradictions and contestations. Given the Confucius history of Chinese imperialism, the Vietnamese traditional values are more characteristic of East Asian than South East Asian countries. Its history of colonialisation makes it more similar with Laos and the Philippines. Its political contexts mirrors China, and its educational system also takes on the East Asian countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, however the orientation to studying abroad follows Japan. These dynamics play out in fascinating ways which may explain my fascination with Vietnamese society.

In doing research for my book “International Graduates Returning to Vietnam”, my Vietnamese heritage and Vietnamese language fluency were critical factors.  I had to relearn Vietnamese language, because many terms have changed since 1975. Also, I had left Vietnam when I was six years old, so my knowledge of Vietnamese was mainly food and places.

Speaking in Vietnamese, I felt a sense of trust with the people that I interviewed. There was space for us to converse in authentic ways. There was a sense of familiarity to the stories that I heard. These were meaningful ideas about personal and complex issues like family relationships, Vietnamese culture, values and beliefs, goals, politics in the workplace, community life.

Our conversations were shared understanding of place and space of a Vietnamese identity, simply because we spoke a common language of Vietnamese.

I was an insider!

When I left the coffee shops where I did most of my interviews, and came back to my mini hotel, I wrote my debriefs in English. These debriefs were part of my data. Putting on the researcher’s hat in compiling these notes, I was aware of my distance to my participants. I was reading my notes about them and my relationships with them as if they were “subjects” of the inquiry.

That is the peril of doing research. I had to constantly balance the “Vietnameseness” in me, which gave great insights into the lives of participants, and then trying to abstract these realities into knowledge which was steeped in Western-oriented training.

I was an outsider!

This process of doing research as insider/outsider was important for my journey as a researcher to understand the ethics of doing research. The problem of research is not how to deal with a kind of knowledge that shall be or is “truth in itself”. Rather the problem lies with the researcher and participants having to deal with the problems of “knowledge making” bounded by the researcher’s intellectual training and the knowledge of participants about their own lives.

Researchers have to interpret the words of their participants, but what they interpret are echoes of their own values, ideals and education. After all, research, particularly social research is not value free. This problem is exacerbated when researchers conduct research in a different culture to their own.

In order for research findings to have relevance for people who live in practical lives, it is important to be conscious of the researcher’s cultural, social and political values and how they project such values into their observations in the fields. The trap that some researchers fall in is in making meanings across cultures, they essentialise culture in explaining their data, rather than recognising their own cultural supposition in making these claims.

Perhaps what makes this research in this book so poignant is that I am Vietnamese so I could understand the position that these participants were in and the values that they carried and upheld. It is still their stories and all I am is the translator.

I am an insider and outsider…


What do international students gain from studying abroad?

When I first became interested in this topic, I was an economist. My PhD supervisor pointed me to the works of the World Bank and I was immediately attracted to the idea of returns on education. I started to look at the various approaches to assessing returns on education which were primarily though jobs or remittances. But I soon realised that this lens does not capture the wide range of social and cultural factors that may shape their aspirations to study abroad, what they can and want to do when they return home.

I became deeply interested in Amartya Sen’s idea of capability as the substantive opportunities that people can have to realise the goals that they have reasons to pursue. This led me to a journey of discovering agency as something to be understood in reference to a person’s aims, objectives and commitment to others.

My book International graduates returning to Vietnam captures this concept of agency. It tells the stories of Vietnamese international students’ experiences when they return home. These stories are everyday experiences in the communities that they live in not something they observe from afar. They are neither struggles nor triumphs, but overlaps of adaptation and preservation of traditions, aspiration and survival, aloofness and trust.

Front cover PhamL

These stories highlight the challenges of Vietnam’s developing society as she finds her place in the world with a deep thrust of economic liberalisation. For these returning international graduates, economic pragmatism has virtue insofar as they are anchored within family responsibilities. Their sense of citizenship too lies within parameters of close networks of family and friends although the idea of civic responsibility has some ideals.

In writing this book, I was intrigued by the lack of research about returning graduates. Among the voluminous and growing number of studies about international students, there is very little focus on what happens to these students when they finish their education abroad. Of the few works on returnees, the rhetoric on jobs and employment as the value-add of international education is clear. This may be because the pull of international education has always been about personal gains aimed at the student market.

This book has a different lens. Written from the perspectives of the Vietnamese graduates, the book captures their experiences in their professional lives, their teaching lives, and their civic lives. What is the potential of acquired international education for them, their families, friends and communities? The book also departs from the literature on international education in its theoretical premise of normative agency and freedom, concepts associated with political philosophy and social theory.

You can find the book here, and here is the chapter list:

  1. Introduction: Rethinking international education
  2. International education: A bridge to ethical development
  3. Sen-Bourdieu framework: Conceptualising normative agency
  4. From theory to praxis: A sociological analysis of capabilities
  5. Encountering the Vietnamese habitus
  6. Priorities, motivations and expectations of returnees
  7. ‘Professional’ field: Skills, income, status and foreign firms
  8. ‘Intellectual’ field: Education reformers and conformers
  9. ‘Civic’ field: Negotiating the ideals of community, citizenship and community work
  10. Conclusion: Skills, knowledge, citizenship and reflexivity

This is my first book, so I am excited and also nervous. After all, when people read the book – the moment when the author and readers meet whether in person or on the virtual space – there is imminent critique. Critique is good, so I have learnt in academia. So, please email me or post your comments to this blog.

Stay tuned, I will include some excerpts or narrations from the book in future blogs. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn if you would like to be notified of my blogs.