So, last week (see here) I contrasted the fact that higher education was a consistent winner at the federal level over the past twenty years, and contrasted that with the fact that higher education had largely been a loser at the provincial level since about 2010 (and not just in the sense that funding is falling in real terms – also in terms of having the ability to offset those losses with higher fees). I went on to suggest that this contrast was more than passing curious since both levels of government are ultimately responding to the same electorate. And I finished by saying that the only possible answer here was that politicians and the public are a lot happier with what universities and colleges are doing on the research front than on the undergraduate teaching front.
A few readers pointed out that it was a bit facile to call that the “only possible answer” and offered some possible alternative explanations, including:
- The state of the economy and provincial fiscal capacity.
- Changing demographics and lower student numbers
- The fact that some provinces at least have privileged resource development over knowledge production
- Provinces understand that universities can make up the difference by loading up on international students
OK, so clearly I shouldn’t have said my explanation was the “only” possible explanation. But I still think it’s the most likely one. Let’s run through those possibilities.
State of the economy? Both levels of government are suffering from weak growth, so it’s difficult to use as an explanatory variable. Yes, the feds are in somewhat better shape fiscally and able to dive into debt in part to fund higher education, but that hardly explains higher education’s success in the latter Harper years.
Privileging resources production over knowledge production? I think that actually proves my point. If post-secondary education can’t compete with commodities whilst we are in the middle of the mother of all commodity downswings, then post-secondary education’s perceived value proposition must really be terrible.
Demographics? This could be a more persuasive argument – the reductions in the real value of grants look somewhat less scary in some provinces if you express them in per-student levels. But a) that doesn’t explain a reluctance to see tuition rise and b) the reductions in government grants don’t map onto changes in demographics very well (i.e. the biggest drops aren’t in the provinces with the biggest demographics issues). This factor is in fact probably exercising some influence on policy-making but I don’t think it’s in the foreground.
The “foreign students will pay for the difference” argument? This is an interesting one because it reverses the usual causality argument – is increasing internationalization of enrolments a cause or a consequence of government funding decisions? I tend to view it as the latter, but can’t really rule out the former. But man, if it is the former, provincial politicians should be called out on this. Someone ought to actually force them to say “do you expect post-secondary institutions to increasingly fund themselves by being finishing schools for the Asian middle-class”? Because if the answer is yes, everyone needs to be thinking much more carefully about their internationalization plans.
So maybe there are some other potential explanations. But ask yourself this: can anyone imagine a government relations strategy which is successful in reversing this decline which doesn’t rest on an improved “offer” from post-secondary institutions? Even if demographics were the problem, the answer to the problem is still going to hinge on the question “what can institutions do better/differently that would change politicians minds?” Even if dissatisfaction with current offerings is not the (sole) root of the problem, can anyone imagine a positive solution which involves universities and colleges staying at the status quo?
No? Me neither.