Governments need to invest in post-secondary education for a strong recovery
By Brenda Austin-Smith
Universities and colleges employ hundreds of thousands of people, educate and train over two million students annually and drive research that improves the lives of all Canadians. In cities and communities across the country, they are regional economic drivers and social and cultural centres. Our world-class post-secondary education system is critical to our prosperity, underpins our democracy and finds solutions to key challenges, be it COVID or climate change.
All of this is in peril – and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public funding for post-secondary education has been stagnant for more than a decade. COVID-19 has brought the system closer to the edge. Strategic investments in universities and colleges must be made now to ensure a strong economic recovery and a more resilient future for Canadians.
COVID-19 has strained resources and reduced revenues, especially from international student fees. For decades, in the absence of sustainable government funding, students and their families have been asked to pay more. Private sources of funding now make up over half of university revenues, up from just 20 per cent when the parents of students may have once been on campus.
Since the last recession in 2008, provincial government spending in the sector has decreased by one per cent in real terms. Meanwhile, student enrolment has grown by more than 20 per cent over the same time and income from tuition by nearly 70 per cent. With every second university student taking on an average of $28,000 of debt to get an education, reliance on student fees to solve the funding crisis simply isn’t sustainable.
There are three areas that need immediate action from the federal government to put post-secondary education on stable footing and improve quality, affordability and accessibility.
First, we need a national strategy for post-secondary education with goals to tackle education inequality, enhance affordability and strengthen research capacity. The last time the federal government increased the base funding to the provinces and territories for post-secondary education was in 2008 under Stephen Harper and this came with no plan of action to address key challenges.
Secondly, we need to accelerate research through enhanced investments in fundamental research. The government’s own Advisory Panel recommended funding levels 40 per cent higher than what we are investing today to keep Canada competitive.
The pandemic has also put much research on hold. In a survey of Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) members, two out of three have seen their research stop or stall as a result of the pandemic. This hiatus in research will have a significant downstream impact on the innovation and knowledge that supports Canada’s economy.
Finally, we need to secure opportunities for youth and the unemployed by decreasing upfront costs and moving to a free tuition model for low and middle-class Canadians. The government’s temporary doubling of the Canada Student Grant this year will help students cover costs this term, however it is still less than the average tuition.
It is also an unsustainable approach.
While we have seen increases in student financial assistance, we have also seen increases in tuition. As some provincial officials half-joke, the best way to leverage federal funding for post-secondary education is to raise tuition, as this will increase demands for federally-funded student financial assistance.
Some of the necessary changes to the funding model for post-secondary education could be met by redirecting the $900 million in unused federal funding from the failed Canada Student Service Grant program. The government could also repurpose the Canada Training Benefit to ensure that Canadians have more meaningful and timely access to educational opportunities.
There are many public services and sectors that need strengthening to get us out of the current crisis and be better for it. Post-secondary education is an essential foundation for social cohesion, innovation, science and economic success in Canada and must not be taken for granted. We cannot let it languish now, when it is so critical to the well-being of our country.
Brenda Austin-Smith is a film studies professor and head of the English, theatre, film & media department at the University of Manitoba. She is also President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents 72,000 academic staff at universities and colleges across the country.
First published in the Toronto Star