Yesterday, I noted that for the last few years provincial governments have refused to either increase funding to PSE institutions to keep up with inflation, or give institutions latitude to raise tuition to make up the difference. Effectively, provincial governments seem a lot more concerned with ensuring that post-secondary education is cheap than with ensuring that it continues to receive real increases in income.
There are competing opinions about why this is the case. My view is simply that few provincial governments see much political return in allowing institutions to increase fees and/or increasing government grants – which is another way of saying the present value proposition for undergraduate education is not very attractive. I would love to see more evidence about this. Imagine if university and college government relations-types would actually go straight up to MLAs/MPPs/MNA/MHAs and say “what is it we could do to get you to spend more money/allow us to raise tuition”? But they seem not to be doing that (or if they are, the answers are disturbing enough that they are not telling the rest of the community). I’m going to go with Occam’s razor here and stick with: they aren’t buying what the sector is selling at the price the sector wishes.
So what to do? Well, broadly, there are two choices.
The first is to do nothing. Don’t change a thing. Avoid the hard questions and the hard trade-offs and keep telling each other we just need to tell better stories. The result will be years of slow decline. To be fair, some people may prefer this to large-scale change. Fair enough. That’s a defensible position. After all, we could drop twenty percent of real dollars per student and still only be back where we were in the late 1990s. It’s unpleasant, but not the end of the world.
The second is to face up to why public support for new money in post-secondary education money has been dwindling. I don’t have any special insight into this but my guess would be that the cause is rooted in some mix of
1) A perception that salaries at post-secondary institutions are too high. To take one example, when the Windsor Faculty Union gets militant starts threatening strikes despite an average salary of over $134,000 in one of the country’s least expensive housing markets, you have a perception problem. The same issue arises when universities continue to add senior non-academic staff positions at salaries over of over $100,000, or when a president double-dips his or her salary. In Ontario, the number of university and college employees in the sunshine list has gone from 1190 and 39 (respectively) to 17,065 and 4,910. The numbers will differ a bit across Canada but not much. And yes, that’s not a completely fair comparison because the cutoff line hasn’t been adjusted for the ~50% inflation over the same period. But public perception is not always fair. The reality is that the public looks at institutional salaries and it sees fat
2) A perception that undergraduates – in arts and sciences at least – are a low priority to institutions. There are too many stories of undergrads stuffed into 1,000 seat auditorium, taught by sessionals for half their degree, or finding required courses unavailable due to either size-cap or simply disappearing from the calendar for a semester. This is unfair to colleges, because frankly they do a whole lot better than universities in terms of keeping education at a human scale, but what universities do in lower-year infects a lot of the public perception about PSE in general.
3) A perception that they are not preparing students for the labour force. This one drives many in universities round the bend, because there are lots of disciplines which are not designed to lead to particular careers. But that’s not the issue. Majors are majors and careers are careers – they don’t need to line up and in many cases they shouldn’t. But according to over 80% of students (and probably around 100% of legislators) the reason students and governments pay for post-secondary education is to help students get better jobs. Institutions can accomplish this through a number of different means: providing experiential learning (like, actually provide more, not just the exercise in re-labeling I’m seeing at many universities), building more explicit assessment of communication, team-work and critical thinking skills into the curriculum, and generally treating learning outcomes and career transitions as if they mattered. Colleges are in some respects better than universities at this, but even there many programs don’t have direct labour-market transitions (anyone looked at placement rates in Police Foundations programs lately)
4) A perception that PSE Institutions are not transparent with data. This is undeniably true. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this.
Regaining a measure of public trust will almost certainly be a prerequisite for increases in public investment. Universities and colleges are going to need to make changes – fairly dramatic ones, I think – in these four areas. If I were in university government relations, I’d be field-testing ideas with politicians, to see what it would take to create a New Deal for post-secondary education. What if institutions froze salaries over $100,000, shrank undergraduate class-sizes, revamped curricula to make them more outcomes-focused and became much more transparent with data? Would that be enough to convince the public that what was on offer was a better, more valuable product, one worth investing in?
I don’t know. But it’s worth asking. Because that other option, the long, slow, decline option, looks pretty unappealing.