We should not commodify education… Really?

One of the good things that came out of the whole discussion about whether teachers should be paid for parking is that many people have come up to object to the idea. This shows that many people do care about teachers, respect teachers, recognise that they are doing good work, and that they should be better treated. One heartening example is this letter to the forum by a 19 year-old. The writer, Mr Kevin Tan, said: “Teaching is a thankless job. The work of teachers cannot be quantified or measured.” He further elaborated:

“Teachers are not just ordinary civil servants or company employees.

Their work is noble.

The sacrifices that every teacher makes to nurture Singapore’s youth is something that few occupations can profess to have made.

Though it may make economic and financial sense to charge teachers for parking, to do so would be to imply that the work of our educators should be commodified.

We recently celebrated our jubilee year where we honoured the pioneers who built our nation.

We should honour the contributions of our teachers as well.

Whether free school parking is labelled as a “perk” or “privilege”, it is, at its core, a tacit acknowledgement of the work our teachers have done for the nation.”

While it is heartwarming to know there are youths care so much about their teachers, Kevin’s erred on the point that charging teachers for parking would imply that “the work of our educators should be commodified”. The best explanation of this is from my friend, Xiuhui. Here’s her post on Facebook addressing this point.

In case it doesn’t load, here is what she said:

““Though it may make economic and financial sense to charge teachers for parking, to do so would be to imply that the work of our educators should be commodified.”

I’m not sure. Typically to commodify something is to put a price on it. To commodify desirable behaviour is to pay people for it; to commodify undesirable behaviour is to fine people for it. Hence, people argue that you should not pay for blood donations, as you might actually reduce the amount (and possibly quality) of donations. There is the famous Israeli daycare experiment that found that fining parents for being late to pick their kids up made more parents late.

So when you offer teachers compensation in the form of free parking, as the writer suggests we do, you are already commodifying part of their service. (It is worth pointing out that paying teachers a wage is already commodifying their service, and we don’t object to that. This is because while there are certainly cases where paying people won’t increase, and may even decrease, desirable behaviour, paying people well is very often the best way to get people to do desirable things, especially if those are things that would benefit from full-time attention. This is why I am glad our teachers are paid well. And this is why there is a strong argument for paying our social workers and others who work in the social services sector more. Some NGO bosses will tell you they don’t need more volunteers, they need more money so that they can hire full-time people.)

Certainly commodification is not all or nothing. When you donate blood at the Dhoby Ghaut blood donation center, you can help yourself to the snacks and drinks laid out on the counter. When you go to the Outram Park one, you get a voucher entitling you to a certain number of items of food and drink at the cafeteria. One could imagine a situation where you are given a voucher with $5 value that you can use at the food court next door. Or you could be just given that $5 in cash. Or, finally, you could be given $20 in cash. Somehow, the closer the compensation is to cash (and the greater the amount of compensation), the more we feel the good behaviour has been commodified.

So if instead of giving teachers free parking, we charge them for it but give it back them in the form of an explicit subsidy, the effect is indeed to move our compensation for teachers towards the greater-commodification end of the spectrum, because more of the compensation is now in dollars and cents.

(By that same token, giving teachers an explicit raise is also moving our compensation of teachers towards greater commodification. And while I am glad that teachers are paid well, and their sacrifices, as the writer says, “cannot be quantified,” there will be a salary beyond which most people would agree we have over-commodified their sacrifices.)

However, what the writer objects to is charging teachers for parking, not converting the implicit subsidy for parking into an explicit one. And when you charge teachers for parking, what is being commodified is, it seems to me, parking, and not teachers’ sacrifices.

There are certainly arguments that we should not commodify parking in this particular case, notwithstanding the general benefits of commodifying parking (for example, it is administratively too much of a hassle and it won’t change driving behaviour very much, because teachers who drive to work have to if they want to manage both their jobs and their caregiving responsibilities; or, we don’t really want to change driving behaviour anyway because when teachers drive to work, they feel more able to devote themselves to their teaching – there are positive externalities; or, free parking for drivers and no corresponding benefits for non-drivers is an administratively easy way to reallocate benefits from teachers with no caregiving responsibilities to those who do, or from those who are less committed to the job to those who are more).

But these arguments are still about commodifying parking, not teachers’ sacrifices.”

I responded to her post with this comment: the assumption is that all teachers who drive have caregiving responsibilities. and all those who don’t drive all don’t have caregiving responsibilities, and that all teachers who drive are more committed and all those who don’t drive all are less committed… which… probably isn’t true…

Her response to my comment gives a brilliant insight to what might be going through the minds of the policy-makers working on this: “I don’t think you necessarily need the assumption that all teachers who drive have caregiving responsibilities (or that all who drive are more committed). Given the administrative hassle of equalising the wage between both groups, all you need is “many” or “most” (instead of “all”) to possibly justify the differentiation (though you could also take the view that it is never worth undercompensating some in order to correctly compensate others).”

It’ll be interesting to see what MOE eventually does. I think they ought to charge, but also increase the SEP for all teachers, such that there is no (or very little) actual cost to teachers who are currently driving. If not, then maintain status quo.


One thought on “We should not commodify education… Really?

  1. This is a classic case of civil servants “creating” fiction and “pretending” they are studying something from all angles. This is a non-issue. Can’t believe they need to review this – they have been working on this for a year now !!!! Tough times are coming; right time to trim the fat in the civil service and the Ministries.


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