So, we haven’t yet got through all the provincial budgets, but it’s crystal clear from those in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, plus the election promises made by the winners/likely winners in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, that there is no chance whatsoever that provincial governments, on aggregate, are going to increase government grants to institutions by an amount equal to inflation. This will mark the fifth time in the last six years that provincial grants to institutions have lagged inflation.
While provinces aren’t spending on post-secondary institutions, they do seem to be quite interested in post-secondary students. In total, aggregate provincial spending on student aid is up by around $600 million in real dollars over the past six years. Which is to say: provinces are happy to make higher education cheaper, they’re just not interested in increasing institutions’ purchasing power.
In contrast to the dire situation in the provinces, universities and (to a lesser extent) colleges are on an unprecedented winning streak in Ottawa. There’s been a goody for postsecondary in literally every single one of the last 20 federal budgets. No other sector can claim anything close to that.
On the face of it, this is a distinctly weird state of affairs. Both the federal and provincial governments are catering to the same set of voters, so why does one level seem to think that post-secondary institutions are worthy of continued attention while the other does not? It’s not an ideology thing: this situation seems to be true no matter which parties are in power (and in any case at the moment Liberals are in power both federally and in most provinces). The answer is pretty simple, though. And I will say it loud and clear, because it’s a message institutions themselves seem unwilling to admit. Ready? Here it is:
The public likes what institutions’ are offering in terms of being engines of economic growth via research and will support it through tax-funded programs. The public does not like what institutions are offering in terms of undergraduate teaching – at least at the price currently offered – and will not countenance major increases in either funding or tuition.
There’s no other explanation here, folks. This is the central, basic dilemma that every university and college is facing right now. The sector used to have a value proposition that the public accepted. That’s how universities more than doubled their income between 1999 and 2009. But no longer. It’s not that the public dislike universities, or think they are “broken”. They are just no longer convinced by the value proposition on offer and would like the cost (and by cost here I mean both tuition and the cost to the treasury) to come down.
Universities and colleges are, I think, mostly in a state of denial about this. “We need to tell better stories”, they say. But c’mon. The public isn’t stupid or in some state of false consciousness. More students are going to post-secondary education than ever before, more people have contact with post-secondary graduates than ever before. They have some sense of what they are talking about. They might, in short, be right about the value proposition.
So instead of assuming the proles and the pols are wrong, and that we just need improve our comms for government to go back to increasing funding at inflation plus 4% the way they were a decade ago, let me suggest that perhaps universities and colleges might actually need to change. If they want the slow erosion of funding to stop, they will actually need to present the government with a new value proposition, a different offering in return for renewed funding.
No, it won’t be easy. But it is necessary, and sooner rather than later.
Tomorrow: what a new value proposition might look like.