The recent students’ movement in Quebec formed in response to the provincial government’s plan to raise tuition fees has sparked a much needed debate on how we should fund post-secondary education. Given that my own opinion on the matter has shifted substantially since I graduated almost ten years ago, I’d like to add my voice and suggest we step back from the free/not-free debate and instead consider smart models of funding.
Before I delve into my argument allow me to add a disclaimer: I am the proud product of public and accessible Canadian education and I will defend it vigorously. I attended only public schools from K-12. Afterwards, the quality instruction I received at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, including the small classroom sizes and 1:1 attention, was instrumental in enabling me to be successful when I pursued graduate studies at Oxford. I graduated with about 15k debt after working two or three part-time jobs at a time and it took me roughly 8 years to pay it off. All of this is to say I heart Canadian public education.
Now on to my argument: accessible post-secondary education provides both individual and collective benefits. If an individual invests wisely in post-secondary studies she is likely to find higher paying work upon graduation and will earn more over the course of her career. On a collective level we as a society benefit from having more people graduate from universities because it makes us smarter, innovative, and more competitive. As such, it is to our benefit to have well-funded world class universities which act as engines of economic growth.
It is not a coincidence, for example, that there is a revolving door between Stanford University and the Silicon Valley Business Community: they feed each other and neither would have achieved its potential without the other. Though the valley may owe its birth to Stanford, Stanford owes its current prestige to the Valley. If Canada wants to remain competitive as a mostly service-based economy (outside of minerals) with India, China, Brazil, etc., it should aim to have world class universities that are on the cutting edge in everything from research and development to liberal arts (I’ll come back to that point later).
Given that both the individual and the collective benefit from strong universities, we might agree then that we all have a stake in ensuring they remain well-funded, but why do they need to be accessible? The equation is simple: as Chilean student activist Giorgio Jackson recently noted at the World Economic Forum’s Discussion on Re-Thinking Education, talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout society, but opportunity is not. Even if you disagree with the inherent right to access of opportunity, you must agree that the best way for us to achieve our collective potential/highest productivity is to exploit our human resources to maximum efficiency. If we limit access to education to a sliver of the population we are not only setting ourselves up for large-scale social upheaval (as has been the case in Chile), but we’re also making ourselves more vulnerable to competitors who can produce more ingenuity by pure volume of graduates.
So the question in my mind is how do we maintain well-funded competitive and state of the art universities while still allowing them to be accessible? I don’t believe the answer is simply making them free or freezing tuition rates. Making universities entirely dependent on government (i.e. tax-payer) funds will put our institutions at a competitive disadvantage since their ability to generate revenue will depend on the fluctuations inherent in the ups and downs of the economy as well as the ideological bend of the government of the day. In addition, there are lots of wealthy people out there who can more than afford public education: why in the end would we want to subsidize everyone equally when some have needs and some don’t? Surely a better strategy is to target those with the most needs with the most subsidy? Doing so then allows for you to elevate more of the have-nots by tipping the scale away from the haves who would otherwise benefit equally as the lesser offs.
Making the post-secondary debate about ‘free’ education misses the point then, because it oversteps the idea that the crux of the matter is that public education needs to be accessible to all, regardless of ability to pay. There are lots of creative ways to achieve accessibility: you can charge tuition fees based on ability to pay; you can offer low-interest loans that sunrise after 10-15 years; you can make re-payment based on post-graduation salary; you can offer financial incentives, as New Brunswick does, to graduates who stay in the province post-graduation. In other words, there are dozens of ideas better than ‘free’ which make education accessible while still creating a level playing field that ensures equality of opportunity and maximum competitiveness. As tax-payers we need to see the collective benefits that come from strong world-class universities while making sure we get the best bang for our buck and demanding that subsidies be targeted to those who most need them, not those who least need them. Let’s not be free, therefore: let’s be smart.
P.S. In yesterday’s Globe and Mail Marget Wente argues that the protests are driven by Liberal Arts Students who are angry because their skill sets wont be applicable in the labour force post-graduation. As a Liberal Arts warrior who ended up working at Google I would like to note that the colleagues who worked alongside me not only studied philosophy like me but also psych., sociology, music, poli sci., etc. Google, like many cutting-edge companies, hires based on talent as opposed to knowledge. In other words, you can know a lot about something but if you aren’t capable of breaking down complex problems then you’re usefulness is limited. You can teach knowledge; you can’t teach talent. Liberal Arts degrees serve to cultivate, develop and extract talent. I would therefore suggest that it is Mrs. Wente, and not the protesters, who is short-sighted.
P.S. Business schools should be able to charge anything they want for an MBA, since in the end what they monetize is career anxiety more than anything else. If they’re allowed to offer the proletariate version of a knighthood and call it a degree, why not let the free market determine the cost? I apologize if I offend any MBA graduates out there: my point is that people will give you all kinds of compelling reasons for doing an MBA; the content isn’t often one of them.