It’s time to reinvest in post-secondary education
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.