It’s time to rein­vest in post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion

Waterloo Region Record - - EDITORIALS & COMMENT - John Peters John Peters is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of labour stud­ies at the School of North­ern and Com­mu­nity Stud­ies, Lau­ren­tian Univer­sity. He lives in Kitch­ener.

On Mon­day, On­tario faces the prospect of a provincewide strike at its 24 col­leges, in­clud­ing Con­estoga Col­lege. This fol­lows last week’s strike at Lau­ren­tian Univer­sity in Sud­bury. Th­ese are but the lat­est sto­ries in the never-end­ing up­heaval across Canada’s post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

Since 2008, there have been 20 fac­ulty as­so­ci­a­tion strikes and count­less oth­ers led by unions rep­re­sent­ing other mem­bers of the cam­pus com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing two at Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity in 2008 and 2016 and an­other at Con­estoga Col­lege in 2011.

For many Cana­di­ans, all this may seem a lit­tle strange. Pro­fes­sors are bet­ter known for chas­ing neu­tri­nos down mine shafts, or for hold­ing events cel­e­brat­ing Mar­garet At­wood, than for walk­ing picket lines.

Yet one doesn’t have to look too far for rea­sons for why fac­ulty and grad­u­ate stu­dents are strik­ing — it is, of course, about money. But not in the usual sense that we think about money dur­ing strikes.

The first big fi­nan­cial is­sue is that Cana­dian gov­ern­ments have cut back pub­lic fund­ing of uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges. In pub­lic speeches, govern­ment of­fi­cials talk in lofty terms of their in­vest­ment in pub­lic post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.

But the re­al­ity is rather dif­fer­ent. Canada has ac­tu­ally cut fund­ing since 2008, and now we rank in the bot­tom half of ad­vanced economies, spend­ing well be­low what Den­mark, Nor­way, and Swe­den in­vest in pub­lic post-sec­ondary teach­ing, re­search, and in­no­va­tion. The pic­ture is the same in On­tario, where the pro­vin­cial govern­ment has re­duced pub­lic fund­ing for uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges and now ranks last in pub­lic per­stu­dent fund­ing in Canada.

The sec­ond thorny is­sue re­lates to how gov­ern­ments have jacked up tu­ition fees and forced stu­dents to bor­row vast sums to cover the cost. Stu­dents in this coun­try are cur­rently sad­dled with $28 bil­lion in loans. While this has been a wind­fall for Canada’s banks, any­one who has reg­u­lar con­tact with stu­dents is aware of the anx­i­ety and stress this causes.

What has made mat­ters even worse, though, has been how quickly ad­min­is­tra­tors’ have seized on the ‘mod­ern and ef­fi­cient’ busi­ness mod­els for univer­sity op­er­a­tion. On the ba­sis of os­ten­si­bly sav­ing money, run­ning uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges ‘like a cor­po­ra­tion’ has be­come the new mantra, of­ten fol­lowed by the equally faulty idea that stu­dents are the ‘new cus­tomers’ and that fac­ulty have to work harder to serve them bet­ter.

The out­comes? None that is sur­pris­ing. On­tario uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges rely more on tu­ition fee in­creases and stu­dent debt than any oth­ers in Canada. Uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges have hired more six-fig­ure ad­min­is­tra­tors than ever be­fore, dou­bling their num­bers of ad­min­is­tra­tors and more than dou­bling their ad­min­is­tra­tion costs into the mil­lions over the past decade.

Uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges have also ap­pointed cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives to their boards of gov­er­nors to over­see new ar­cane fi­nanc­ing ar­range­ments, while turn­ing to the pri­vate sec­tor for lawyers to dis­pense ad­vice on how to run ne­go­ti­a­tions and seek con­ces­sions from their fac­ulty.

Now univer­sity and col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tions across Canada (of­ten fol­low­ing govern­ment di­rec­tives) have opted for the next step in their new ‘ed­u­ca­tion as a busi­ness’ model — ar­gu­ing that they need to cut costs and in­crease work­loads. This has left fac­ulty with the ag­o­niz­ing choice to ei­ther al­low the ad­min­is­tra­tion to erode the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion, or de­fend the qual­ity of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and go on strike.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than cut­ting fund­ing, gov­ern­ments need to make the choice to rein­vest in post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.

The fed­eral govern­ment’s cur­rent trans­fers to post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion are shame­ful — less than .2 per cent of GDP or, put an­other way, less than what the fed­eral govern­ment cur­rently spends on pa­per, sup­plies, and op­er­at­ing costs. Cash­strapped pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments pub­lic in­vest­ments on post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion are only mod­estly bet­ter.

Pub­licly in­vest and elim­i­nate tu­ition fees like most West Euro­pean coun­tries do, and the fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments can ac­tu­ally claim to be sup­port­ing uni­ver­si­ties as ‘driv­ers of in­no­va­tion’.

Uni­ver­si­ties also need to stop think­ing about them­selves as be­ing pri­vate busi­nesses. They are not. The more prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion is for uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges to op­er­ate like pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions again — let­ting pro­fes­sors and stu­dents have a say in how their in­sti­tu­tions are run, and en­sure that uni­ver­si­ties op­er­ate on a not-for-profit ba­sis.

Es­tab­lish pub­lic univer­sity boards to en­sure ac­count­abil­ity, cut ex­ec­u­tive salaries, elim­i­nate pri­vate en­dow­ments and busi­ness ap­pointees, and have busi­ness ac­tu­ally step up and hire stu­dents into ap­pren­tice­ships and in­tern­ships, and we can again be on the path to mak­ing our uni­ver­si­ties bet­ter places for teach­ing, dis­cov­ery, and en­gage­ment.

We have the means and the know-how to cre­ate bet­ter post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. But con­flict, busi­ness mod­els, and stu­dent debt are not go­ing to get us a bet­ter sys­tem.

It’s time for pub­lic re­newal in our post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor and for a re­ver­sal of a decade of bad pol­icy choices. It is also time for On­tario’s uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges to step up and rein­vest in high­qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion — pro­vid­ing the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion that all stu­dents, fac­ulty, and ci­ti­zens ex­pect and de­serve.

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