Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Value of a Good Education

 Last week in my post about why Canadian history is great I mentioned I am a graduate student in history. This week I would like to turn my focus to post-secondary education. During the provincial election I wrote on Liberal education policy, with a focus on K-12, you can read my thoughts there.

During the election Dalton McGuinty and his party promised to create thousands of new positions in universities, not to mention three brand new universities. Every year thousands of students enter the post-secondary system in Ontario. An increasing focus on college education is beneficial, but when people think post-secondary, they are usually thinking about university. Premier McGuinty and the government of Ontario are aiming to make Ontario the most educated workforce in North America, and the world, to attract employers. But are we doing that correctly?

Despite all the complaints about the cost of tuition a very large proportion of the cost of education is subsidized by the provincial government. If memory serves undergrad students only pay 30% of the cost, and the province picks up 70%. The rate for graduate students is even higher. Are we spending our money properly?

The government is making an economic argument for why we should educate ourselves. The subsidies students receive are across the board, we do not target fields we need growth in. All students are treated equally regardless of whether their program is sports and recreation or physics. From my own experience, teachers’ colleges are by far and away producing more teachers than the province can hire. I heard in teachers’ college that Ontario graduated 7,000 teacher-candidates that did not find positions. That ignores the students at American universities or out-of-province. How many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into teacher education that resulted in careers other than what was intended? Why are we overinvesting in these programs?

Master’s or graduate programs are equally questionable. If I recall correctly the province subsidizes Master’s education to the tune of over 80%, and the tuition is higher, so it is a greater cost to the public. Universities are expanding their graduate and research components to compensate for budget shortfalls. A handful of new grad school positions can provide the same income as a class of undergrads.

Higher education used to be the preserve of an elite, for better and worse. The only people who got an MA or MSc intended to be an academic. Master’s degrees are now an effort to distinguish themselves from the sea of BAs and BScs. Government policy now openly favours academic inflation and the erosion of the value of each degree. I am not a fortune teller, but the economic productivity that is thrown off by my area of education is tenuous at best. Those getting an MA in English, or philosophy, or popular culture may not be the best investment for the province. Colleges are becoming finishing schools for university graduates who need real skills to enter their desired fields. Clearly, the economic end-goals of the province and students are not being met.

But is education about economic ends? I feel confident that if I asked why my peers in the MA History program were in the program, they would say they were drawn to it because of a love of history and a love of learning, likewise with my friends in other MA programs. I do not mean to be an idealist, but universities should be centres of advanced learning and knowledge, not just career-prep centres.

If the province is truly interested in using post-secondary education to crank the economy then shouldn’t it target its funding? Grants should be given to the skilled trades, or perhaps they should get 100% free tuition. Degrees in engineering, technology, advanced sciences, business and accounting should be highly subsidized, perhaps on the backs of students who want a classic liberal education in the arts and humanities. The goal of a post-secondary education is to get a career with a high income and good benefits.

That’s what a post-secondary education is for, right?

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