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President’s message / A new deal for post-secondary education

President’s message / A new deal for post-secondary education

By Brenda Austin-Smith

The rhetoric of war dominates descriptions of how Canada should cope with COVID-19. Almost as widespread as the virus itself are military metaphors that urge us to fight this “unseen enemy,” and to contend with the disease in ways akin to a battle requiring a variety of “pivots” on the part of health care workers, industry, and the general population in how we work and live. We in the public sector are called to make sacrifices reminiscent of those of Europe in WWII, when victory gardens, rationing, and black-outs were responses to government requests to help.

As a disrupted spring term gives way to an equally unsettled summer session, we can see the toll taken on the post-secondary sector by the virus. When asked earlier this year to move instruction, research, and service work online, academic staff turned on a dime to help their students finish the regular session using emergency remote teaching. We adjusted our research methods, and many shifted focus to COVID-19 related areas of inquiry. We connected to service duties electronically. The burden of that extra work fell disproportionately on contract academics, many of whom have worked hours well over those for which they were contracted.

But as the social and economic effects of COVID-19 continue to ripple through our sector, the history of war offers equally important lessons about what comes next. Mass devastation requires equally massive reconstruction to support populations and institutions to recover. After WWII, Canada set up the Veterans Rehabilitation Act (VRA), a program of benefits for veterans that included access to education. As the authors of Taking Public Education Seriously write, the VRA covered tuition and an allowance for those interested in both college and university, resulting in doubled university enrolments by 1947. Each institution also received a grant for each registered veteran (Iacobucci and Tuohy, 278). Government initiatives like this had an important role to play in democratizing access to post-secondary education, especially in a time of economic crisis, when un-and underemployment motivates more people to enrol in college and university in order to improve their knowledge and skills.

We are now in the most calamitous social and economic situation since the Great Depression, and it is time for a New Deal for education led by the federal government. Economist Jim Stanford writes insightfully about this in a recent article for Policy Options. What we need to fight not just the virus, but also its persistent effects on the economy, is a present-day equivalent of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe postwar. As Stanford observes: “For many years to come, Canada’s economy will rely on public service, public investment and public entrepreneurship as the main drivers of growth. They will lead us in recovering from the immediate downturn, preparing for future health and environmental crises and addressing the desperate conditions in our communities.” Education is critical to that recovery, which will take years, and considerable fiscal intervention. The usual hand-wringing about mounting deficits and debts will surface before long, but this needs to be forcefully dismissed. Government has access to extraordinary borrowing capacity, and the health and stability of the country and its population in the future depends upon bold action now. Recognizing the dramatic need for fiscal intervention in post-secondary education, CAUT calls on the federal government to take action on three recommendations that would carry our institutions through the immediate crisis, and allow them to contribute to the recovery:

  • Allow universities and colleges to access the Canada Emergency Wage subsidy;
  • Work with provinces and institutions on tuition waivers to make sure any qualified student can get education and training without taking on new debt;
  • Increase the federal transfer to the provinces for post-secondary education with agreements on shared priorities to improve affordability, accessibility, and quality.

These steps are both critical and practical. They will reduce unemployment, lower barriers to education without increasing household debt to do so, and create long-term, predictable public funding for our national system. Well-funded educational institutions will assist Canada in recovering from the pandemic. If we are indeed in a war, supporting students, universities, and colleges in these ways must be part of the nation’s war effort, and most importantly, part of what comes next.