From ordinary students and recent graduates, the response was basically some variant of the “n of one” reaction: “I pay attention, I have debt; therefore, it is not be possible that, across the whole, non-repayable aid had doubled, or that this country spends as much on non-repayable aid as it collects in tuition”.
This is what I call Solipsistic Social Science (SSS): when confronted with evidence that conflicts with previous beliefs, the reaction is not curiosity (e.g. “how is that possible”? Or, “why might that be”? Rather, it provokes outright denial: “if it’s not happening to me, it can’t be happening at all”. Understandable? Maybe. But it’s a bit sad coming from people with post-secondary education, though. Were I in a cattier mood, I’d suggest it’s a kind of disgraceful that PSE graduates might suffer from it, and it reflects badly on institutions themselves.
The more interesting reaction, though, came from “official” PSE groups, where the “but whaddabout” reaction reigned supreme. Aid dispensed as high as tuition collected? But whaddabout living expenses? Large numbers of students receiving more in aid than they pay in tuition? But whaddabout “lived experiences of struggling students”?
Now, some of those points are valid (and indeed I raised some of these myself back here). But the utter inability of everyone to even acknowledge the data existence was kind of incredible. OCUFA’s dismissed Margaret Wente’s article as being “tone-deaf”. You see, it doesn’t actually matter whether everything she said was factual or not, the problem was “tone”. And the only acceptable tone, apparently, is CRISIS. The fact that government aid has risen significantly in real dollars over the past 15 years, or that rises in student aid since 1999 have more than kept pace with real increases in tuition, or that since 1999, student debt has been flat, and student debt burdens (that is, the percentage of average after-tax income used to repay educational debt) have fallen by a third? That’s all “ideological”.
Well, you know what? The sector needs to grow the hell up. The reliance on perpetual crises isn’t just childish – it’s dishonest. A decade worth of good policy-making on student aid means that higher tuition – which has helped institutional finances immeasurably – haven’t had many negative consequences. That’s something to celebrate, but instead Canadian PSE groups try to pretend it never happened because they prefer the crisis narrative.
I get that people think that political traction is hard to obtain in the absence of a crisis. But no matter how worthy the cause, it’s not alright to pretend to knowingly ignore the truth in the attempt to drum up support. Especially in higher education. Our sector is supposed to be about truth, honesty, and rigour. Ignoring those rules in the hunt for more money is unconscionable, and in the long run does more damage than good.