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.