Nearly every week, the media tells a distressing story of the financial prospects of our graduating class: overwhelming student debt, depressed wages for perhaps a decade, want of basic cognitive capacity (graduates lack the “critical skills,” “problem-solving, writing skills, social intelligence and adaptive thinking” necessary for today’s workforce).
But don’t fear: the Globe and Mail has a plan to deliver us from this Dickensian future of functional illiteracy and debt servitude. “RE:EDUCATION,” a series launched Oct. 6, proposes a “radical overhaul of the system,” including such innovative suggestions as lifting the tuition cap — which in B.C. forbids domestic tuition from rising more than the rate of inflation — and creating a two-tiered system of education.
The first tier would be composed of a small number of elite research institutions (similar to the Ivy League) for students who “value their proximity to the top scholars and researchers.” The larger and more varied second tier would de-emphasize research and focus on remedial teaching and “up-skilling” through a vague balance of online and offline courses.
But wait, there’s more! These schools would offer you a “deification of choice” through degree customization, including add-ons and bonus “degree badges,” turning your education into something like buying World of Warcraft expansion packs.
Why the overhaul? The “massification” of education. We made the silly mistake of making education too accessible, creating a glut of over-qualified and under-employed riffraff.
They think it would really be best for everyone that you leave these august halls of higher learning to the bluebloods, and set that tattered copy of The Republic down as you march back to the salt mines from whence you came.
Returning to the world of reality, I have good news for you: there is no crisis in higher education, and certainly not one that demands this sort of transformation.
Despite the recession, completing a post-secondary degree, by the numbers, remains the single most prudent financial decision you can make. Next time you see a melodramatic warning of your impending poverty or read a long treatise about how we have to “fix” universities, I want you to remember a few facts.
• The unemployment and underemployment rate of young, university-educated workers is substantially lower than those without university educations. During the recession, unemployment rates for the university-educated increased only 0.6 per cent for men and 1.2 per cent for women.
• The income gains from post-secondary education are as large as they have ever been, and the wage gap between those with and without post-secondary degrees is only increasing. According to a UBC co-authored study, those with university educations can expect 40 to 50 per cent more lifetime income on average.
• Youth unemployment is not some peculiar consequence of a Canadian policy of over-education, but a phenomena across the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, Canada has been praised for being well below the OECD average.
• Young graduates are indeed suffering, but the problem is not over-education or the failure of the academy, it is a sluggish economy. Low aggregate demand coupled with austerity policies threatens to prolong this economic stagnation.
Instead of boosting spending to stimulate the economy, the 2012 provincial budget has made substantial cuts to post-secondary education. This is the continuation of a trend since the 1970s, when 90 per cent of post-secondary revenue was covered by government (by 2000, just 57 per cent, according to the Canadian Federation of Students).
Anyone interested in the financial plight of Canadian students should plead with the government to reinvest in post-secondary education. We should not use the consequences of economic stagnation as a pretence for thinly veiled calls to segregate our universities across class lines.