So I see that COU has commissioned a poll, which has come back with the result that: Ontarians think universities are almost as essential as hospitals and primary/secondary schools.
- 88 per cent of adult Ontarians ranked universities’ overall contributions to the province as important, just behind hospitals (92 per cent), and elementary and high schools (90 per cent);
- 72 per cent of adult Ontarians say that teaching at universities to increase knowledge and skills is a very important contribution to society;
- 79 per cent believe that, through research, universities make a very important contribution to understanding science and healthcare;
- 87 per cent believe Ontario university students benefit greatly from university programs.
The purpose behind this poll is obviously to say, “Hey! Don’t cut our funding, because Ontarians think we’re almost as important as hospitals!” And while it’s tempting to dismiss this with a simple, “good luck with that”, I think it requires some much deeper reflection, because it actually worries the bejesus out of me – not because I think the results are bad, but because I’m terrified of how politicians will interpret them. COU seems to hope that government will see the word “essential” and think: “money!” But it’s just as likely that they will see the word “essential” and think: “holy moley, we’d better regulate that sucker”.
You see, when something becomes “essential” to citizens, they tend to blame the government if things somehow go wrong. Heat, water, electricity? All either government owned or heavily regulated. Phones, ditto. Hospitals, primary schools, same thing. They’re all, in essence, utilities – things taxpayers expect to have at their fingertips when they want it. And governments judge their success on utilities by how little whining they hear about it.
There are benefits to being a utility, of course: you roughly know how much money you’re going to get each year; there’s certainly no need to compete with others; and there’s no need to be world-class or anything like that. And this is just as well, because governments don’t care if their utilities are world-class. They just care about them not causing problems with the voters.
But what if “essential” universities start doing things the government doesn’t like? Well, then the government might do things like get stuck into enrolment policy, telling universities who they can and can’t enrol. They might dictate to whom they give scholarship money (not foreigners). Veto some choices for President. Amend the strategic plan so that it meets “system-wide” objectives. It’ll start slowly, and then before you know it, they’ll be in control, micromanaging universities to death. Even if they do pay less than half the bill.
The basic problem here, once again, is that university costs continue to rise faster than university revenue. The instinctive university response to this problem seems to be to go hunting for more money from government. But there’s a price to pay for that – and for how long will universities pay it?