This is an age which tells us that a university degree is necessary for any chance of future success. Like the majority of high school students, I expect to be reasonably well-off soon after finishing university, with a steady career and assets. Even though many of us are aware of the ever-increasing costs of higher education, we expect to pay off the grand sum with ease.
The trends speak differently. In 2009, Statistics Canada found that over half of students who matriculate from university owe money for student loans. The average loan is $27,000 and takes over a decade to pay off. Coupled with interest rates from five to nine per cent, it’s no wonder that graduated students are moving back to their parents’ basements in their twenties. Even finding a job to pay off the loans is difficult – today’s fresh university grads face the highest youth unemployment rates in decades, ranging from 15.6 per cent to a ridiculous 56.2 per cent in B.C.
These trends, looming in many of our futures, are even more troublesome when coupled with indications that some of these institutions are starting to resemble private corporations. Although traditionally public research institutions, several prominent Canadian institutions were found to collect more funds from student tuitions than the government in operating grants in recent years. The problem is fuelled by ever-increasing demand for university educations and insufficient government funding. Although government funds have not decreased monetarily, they are now only sufficient for accommodating higher numbers of students, neglecting other operation costs. Several other institutions are expected to approach or surpass this tipping point in the coming years, proving that our institutions are becoming increasingly more private than public.
It makes sense that Canadian schools – who receive far less private funding than notable American private schools like Harvard or Stanford – are operating more like private corporations in their own self-interest. After all, universities need funds for their own research endeavours. Without the prestige and loyal alumni of some American schools, Canadian schools are often unable to offer the same resources. For some of the youngest and brightest Canadians, going to the States with the aid of generous financial incentives is cheaper than staying in Canada. Many of them will remain in the United States after graduation.
Corporate behaviour by universities has resulted in disastrous financial results for the younger generation. An institution funded primarily by student enrolment makes financial gains by increasing its enrolment, much like the sale of products for a company. At the same time, it strives to keep operating costs at a minimum, resulting in quality compromises for students. Increased class sizes, reduced faculty sizes, reduced spending on teaching resources, and the removal of entire programs are several examples.
At some institutions, the lower-ranking employees are the ones who feel the negative impacts of a corporate employer, such as salary freezes and reduced pension plans. Six out of the ten recorded university strikes in history occurred within the last five years, a sure sign of employee dissatisfaction. One strike involved the school’s custodial workers requesting a higher minimum wage of $8/hr. The same occurred at the University of California, where it was noted that top executives at the university had recently pocketed large raises and bonuses. A faculty strike at York University lasted for 85 days, severely impacting both students and employees. And although the effect of strikes themselves on education is clearly negative, there also comes the ethics questions into play. Do we want to proudly support a school that treats its employees like JP Morgan does?
All of this goes towards a degree that could potentially amount to nothing, a future career that is often more “useful” than desired, and thousands of dollars of debt.
Education is one sector in which reduced spending cannot be afforded, even in light of the financial crisis. Allowing universities to depend on student funding instead of government grants is detrimental to both the schools and to the students. Students face a lower quality of education, and schools are forced to attract and support more students than they can manage for their tuitions. If the federal government can afford multi-billion dollar bank bailouts, it can afford to make a few more transfer payments to support provincial education systems. Provinces should adopt steps to assist students financially, such as reduced interest rates for student loans, or none at all. Elongated campaigns to de-stigmatize non-university alternatives can alleviate the overall stress on universities. Ultimately, supporting our generation’s education can only benefit the future goals of the country.