Higher Education Strategy Associates

The New Normal: Students First, Institutions Last

There’s a new dynamic at work in Canadian higher education.  And it should scare the bejesus out of everyone who cares about the sector.

Consider the following:

In Alberta, where the Conservative Government last week cut operating budgets by nearly 7%, and institutions have been told to forget about offsetting through tuition fees, the student aid budget rose by almost a quarter.

In Ontario, the Liberal Government won re-election last year on a platform of no more money to institutions over four years (a pledge matched by all other parties), combined with a 30% discount in tuition for full-time undergraduates.  The Ontario Tories do seem to want institutions to be able to raise a bit more money via tuition fees in carefully selected programs.

In Nova Scotia, the provincial government commissioned Tim O’Neill to tell them how to save the higher education system, then ignored his report, then cut higher education budgets by a little more than 10% over the last three years (with more cuts to come).  Student aid, increased in the early years of the government, was spared those cuts.

At the federal level, it’s not much better.  The left-ish Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)’s annual Alternative Federal Budget fell into the same pattern: Add $1.7 billion to provincial transfers for PSE, but attach strings so it had to be used to reduce tuition.  Despite committing almost $4 billion in spending to the sector (some of it repurposed from tax credits), the only new money that might flow to higher education from the AFB proposals would be through expanded PSSSP funding to First Nations students.  The rest?  It goes to students, in one form or another.

The pattern is clear.  From east to west, from left to right, the pattern is the same: protect students (and their families), cut the institutions.

Some increases in student aid are justifiable, of course.  And Canadian PSE institutions are generously funded by international standards, and so should find a way to adjust to these cuts, at least in the short-term.  But there’s a deeper problem here.  If we’ve reached the point where the question of how to least inconvenience students and parents trumps the provision of quality education, the sector has a serious long-term problem on its hands.

At root, it’s a collective failure to convince the public that they’re getting value-for-money in PSE.   Until people are convinced otherwise, the demand for cheaper education is going to trump the demand for better education.  Priority one for everyone in the sector is to reverse that dynamic.

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2 Responses to The New Normal: Students First, Institutions Last

  1. Dan Smith says:

    I’m glad that Alex focuses on quality – it is an issue that seems often lost in the discussion on tuition policy. In education, like many things, there is a significant difference between “inexpensive” and “cheap.” No one wants “cheap,” but we can easily get there if “inexpensive” is pursued with too much vigour and not enough thought.

  2. Anne says:

    (Full disclosure: I’m a grad student, have been involved in 2 University senates and their committees)

    It’s a great and provocative piece that reminds us about the need for quality. Nevertheless, I’m reluctant to heckle these various governments off the stage because of their initiatives. I have a big problem with tuition being used as a backstop to declining public funding. If the general public doesn’t want to pay for PSE, that’s their perogative, but no university should attempt to cover up for the resulting decline in quality or services, or sometimes both, by increasing the financial load of students (University tuition tends to rise faster than inflation, so there is a real term cost difference). If the general public is not faced with the consequence of declining funding, then they cannot be expected to make an informed decision as to what PSE should look like, or how it should be funded. These various initiatives mentioned in this article, while potentially harmful to the institution, may in the end be better for the PSE sector as a whole.

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