Higher Education Strategy Associates

Left-Wing, Right-Wing

One of the oddest things about the politics of higher education in Canada is the way that it seems to transcend divisions of left and right.

You might think, as a rule of thumb, that left-wing governments tend to keep tuition low while right-wing governments are more comfortable with letting tuition rip. Globally, that’s more true than not, but there are significant exceptions – in the U.K. and Australia, for instance, tuition was introduced by Labour governments (though in both cases, Conservative governments followed up with still-larger increases). But in Canada, the politics of tuition don’t quite look that way. Parties of both left and right are obsessed with “affordability” and describe it in the same terms.

(Pop quiz – which provincial political party’s platform contains the words “Tuition rates are among the highest in Canada, saddling graduates with excessive debt loads while scaring away many others from pursuing higher education entirely.” Answer at bottom.)

Right-of-centre parties in Ontario and Alberta, for instance, seem to be interested in freezing tuition because they view it as a form of taxation, another way that governments stick their hands in citizens’ pockets. Among centre-left parties the ostensible reason is a concern about accessibility; but since the research is pretty clear that the effects of tuition on access is close to zero, one has to conclude that these parties are either illiterate or they are pandering to the same middle-class constituency as the right under a fake veneer of “progressive” social policy.

Where there is real daylight between left and right in Canada is in the way they treat institutions during a recession. And the difference isn’t, for the most part, in whether they cut higher education budgets – that’s as much a function of government tax receipt than it is of ideology – rather, it’s in how they choose to cut it. Where right-wing governments tend to be pretty hands-off (“Here’s your five percent cut, guys – best of luck”), centrist- and left-wing governments tend to want to tell institutions exactly how and what to cut. Exhibit A for this is Glenn Murray’s recent consultation paper which, converted into simple language, basically says “we’re cutting your budgets but it doesn’t matter because I, the Minister, have a bunch of great ideas which you institutions were too stupid to have thought of on your own.”

So, Canadian higher ed politics in a nutshell: the left-centre thinks it knows how to run universities and colleges better than university and college staff, and the right doesn’t really much care how they are run. And everyone’s skittish about asking the middle-class to pay more tuition.

*Answer: Alberta’s Wildrose Party. But it could have been the Ontario NDP, too, no?

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