Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A sticky issue: (Post-secondary) education and the Canadian Federal election

[Full disclosure: in the 2008 federal election campaign, I worked on the communications committee for Gerard Kennedy's campaign in Parkdale-High Park, Toronto.]


With the announcement of the date of Canada's next federal election (May 2nd), amid the sound and the fury we have already seen the point made that education can (and should) become an election issue.

Those readers who are not Canadian or have never lived in Canada may find this statement nonsensical or at least somewhat odd. How could education not be an issue in a nationwide election? The answer is that in Canada, education is under provincial jurisdiction (along with health care and social services). So Canada is one of the only countries--if not the only country--in the world lacking a national office, department or ministry of education. In fact, education is constitutionally relegated to the jurisdiction of the provinces, so federal intervention is never direct (though it certainly does occur). This complication was explained well by Carson Jerema in a recent blog post along with some predictions about the major parties' proposed education policies.

What makes education a difficult issue in a Canadian federal election?

Election issues for universities could be described as a series of long-term problems around which policy choices and political platforms tend to revolve. Some examples include:

…Authority along institutional, provincial, and federal lines.

As I mentioned above, the federal government cannot intervene directly in post-secondary education, though they do enjoy indirect influence through their control over such areas as student assistance (loans and grants), science and technology policy, research and infrastructure funding via the Tri-Council (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) and Canada Foundation for Innovation, and also language policy, education for indigenous peoples, training and employment initiatives, and immigration. At the same time, because the federal government deals with national economic policy, it has a direct interest in the development of “human capital” (an educated workforce) through higher education institutions in particular.

This is why proposals such as those found in the NDP’s election platform, for example, are problematic. Funding for post-secondary operating budgets comes from “transfers” to the provinces from the federal government. But to assert that an $800 million dedicated transfer can be used specifically to reduce tuition costs, probably steps over two lines—provincial, and institutional—at once. From what I can tell this is a policy goal that couldn’t be implemented from the federal level.

The issue goes beyond merely having to avoid any talk of university tuition fees. For example, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff wants every student who is qualified—i.e. every student who has high enough grades—to be able to attend university. This is a fine goal, but because his plan cannot encompass high schools, he cannot guarantee that an increasing focus on grades will not merely result in an increase to grade inflation, something that has been discussed anecdotally for years and for which more solid evidence has been presented in the United States (at both secondary and post-secondary levels). So while Ignatieff’s plan would help, it would help those who received high grades without also ensuring that all high schools are preparing these students adequately for university-level study. Accessibility in one way does not mean accessibility in all ways; and the lack of communication and collaboration between universities and high schools needs to be addressed through collaboration between all levels of government.

…Targeted funding vs. egalitarian funding; elite/focused vs. mass/dispersed models.

In recruitment for both students and faculty, elite (merit-based) funding programs involve funneling a larger amount of funding to the most competitive candidates, including most recently an emphasis on those recruited from overseas since the “market” for talent is now a global one. In research, targeted programs (used by institutions as well as by governments) tend to emphasize certain areas as strategic priorities and direct funding them to accordingly. The federal Conservatives have in the past focused heavily on this practice, especially via the Tri-Council. One example would be the addition of extra funding to SSHRC that was reserved specifically for “business-related” projects.

The Liberals’ proposed “Learning Passport” is, on the other hand, designed to spread non-repayable funding over a broader base of students with an emphasis on financial need and accessibility. But it still doesn't address the full extent of the problem faced by 30 years of planning for an unsustainable system (i.e. continued expansion of enrollment without parallel increases to funding), since the amount available to students barely makes a dent in the overall cost of their education.

…The research/teaching “problem” and expansion of the university system.

Expansion is not sustainable in the long-term if the ideal is an elite model funded primarily by government contributions; yet this model seems to continue without serious systemic re-planning even at the provincial level. In the United States we can see a somewhat unhealthy version of marketized, massified systems, wherein online, for-profit programs are mopping up those students who cannot gain acceptance to quality public and private non-profit schools. In the U.K and particularly in England, the current policy chaos reflects the same conundrum—rapid expansion of enrollments with a very high level of funding from the government, leading to a series of deep targeted cuts (to teaching, primarily) and an extreme quasi-marketization policy that has so far failed in creating a differentiated university “market”. In Canada the situation hasn’t yet reached such an intense level, but neither has the answer been found to the question of widespread accessibility and quality; based on the evidence I’d say that marketization is not an answer, but it’s what is usually proposed.

What makes education difficult as an election issue--in general?

Governments employ a two-sided logic in promoting PSE, arguing for it as both a public (social) good, and a private (individual) good for students and families. These arguments are important because over time, students have come to pay a proportionally larger amount of the cost of their education in the form of tuition and other fees. As PSE becomes more of a hefty investment, students want to know that this cost will generate a “return” (a private good) in the form of increased job prospects. This is why we see so many news reports discussing the monetary gains of degree-holders over a the course of a lifetime. As well as promoting individual gains, governments also operate with the assumption that a more highly educated population will benefit national economic goals; education is thus seen as primarily “economic” in both arguments. Yet as a personal investment PSE does not pay off for each person in the way the collective investment (of many people) will ultimately pay off for the government. Education is a highly personal and uneven “product” that is marketed as universally beneficial.

Another political issue is that people who don’t already have post-secondary credentials are less likely to vote on or care about education; they may even (justifiably) resent the idea that “everyone” should have a post-secondary credential, because it demonstrates less respect or apparent value to whatever role they occupy, and because they may well have been excluded from PSE themselves. In fact there is an entire discourse about university/educational “waste” of taxpayer dollars, in particular that students waste money and professors’ salaries are too high, and indeed that public institutions are in general overly wasteful. Sometimes this converges with the idea that “they” (university-education people and academics in particular) “think they’re better than us”.

Even those who do have a PSE credential are unlikely to care about this issue after their university or college days are over, unless they have university-age children and are currently liable for the bill. And that phase passes within the term of a government, making post-secondary education a very difficult issue to argue in the public political realm in terms of seeking new funding from governments (and also tuition increases). Unlike health care, it’s not an issue in which many people tend to take a sustained/lifelong interest.

Lastly, there’s the student vote, the one connected directly to education issues as a part of campaign platforms. Every election “youth apathy”, in the form of low voter turnout, is decried (students are also conflated with “youth” in general). This election we’ve seen the issue highlighted in a new way: with “vote mobs”, inspired by the now notorious videos produced by Rick Mercer. There’s been much speculation as to whether this will actually improve the turn-out of young voters. I hope it does. But I also notice that the focus has been primarily on universities and students, and not on the youth who stand most to gain from electing a more progressive government—those who are unemployed, under-privileged, and have least access to education and training (and to political information).

In sum, there’s always somewhat of a Canadian quandary come election time: how can advocates, activists and "stakeholders" make education a political issue, in a meaningful way, during this federal election?

Will the remainder of the campaign provide any answers on this count?