The Benefit of a Post Secondary Credential
Public funding per student in Canadian higher education has been in decline for at least 15 years. There are at least two broad reasons for this fact. First, governments are unable (or unwilling) to maintain post secondary funding during a period of tremendous growth. It is staggering that during the 10 years between 1999 and 2009, the proportion of Canadians aged 25-64 who earned a post secondary credential increased from 39% to 50%.
Second, there is an argument related to who actually benefits from a public investment in post secondary education. Certainly we now know an individual’s employment prospects and income increases if they earn a post secondary credential. In fact, the higher the earned credential, the greater the personal benefit accrued by the graduate. This has led to a philosophical belief by some individuals that attending a college or university is more of a private benefit than a public one (not a position that I necessarily support). To this end, the argument suggests that it is the person who accrues these financial and social advantages who should also be the one who pays for these benefits*.
The Privatization of Post Secondary Education in Canada
While provincial governments reduce funding per student, there has also been a corresponding increase in tuition rates. Specifically, Statistics Canada reports tuition fees increased an average of 10% per year through the 1990s and 4% on average during the first ten years of the new millennium. This downloading of costs to the student reflects a shift in public policy. That is, we are moving from a publically funded post-secondary system to at best a publically assisted system. In other words, we are witnessing the privatization of higher education in Canada.
This shift in public funding policy has forced colleges to be more accountable and more efficient. In some respects, this is a good thing. In fact, over the past 10 years, Ontario colleges have been remarkably successful in supporting the government’s desire to achieve more graduates. Even while funding has decreased, colleges have produced more graduates than at any other time in the history of higher education in Canada. More impressively, Ontario colleges have accomplished this outcome while being the lowest funded system in the Country.
Rethinking Baccalaureate Education in Canada
During this time of increased post secondary participation, we have also heard about the need to have the equivalent of three new universities in Ontario to meet this demand. In my view, suggesting there is a need for new universities is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. That is, if the real outcome we desire is to increase the number of baccalaureate graduates, the question that should be asked is, “How might we most effectively and efficiently achieve more baccalaureate graduates and at what cost”?
To that end, Ontario colleges are a baccalaureate education success story. Even though the Ministry has erected artificial barriers that inhibit the growth of these degrees at colleges, the fact remains that 1000s of students have chosen to complete their baccalaureate program at an Ontario college (Humber College being the best success story).
When students choose to complete their degree at an Ontario college, they receive a degree in four years, in an environment that is of the highest quality and where their learning outcomes are both relevant and pragmatic. Perhaps most importantly, the people of Ontario are the true benefactors as they receive a highly prepared graduate who has been educated at a cost significantly less than what the public would have paid had these students gone to a university to complete their degree. Further, students who enter a college diploma program and who wish to bridge to a degree can almost always do so easier than had that student attempted to articulate their diploma into a degree offered by a university (particularly in Ontario). This is another substantial cost saving for both the government and the student.
The Exemplary Teaching and Learning Experience
Canadian universities represent some of the finest in the world. This was apparent in the recent QS World University Rankings where two Canadian institutions ranked in the top 50 and many others in the top 500. However, these universities are more research organizations than teaching institutions. I would argue that the teaching and learning experience at Ontario colleges is as good as any teaching university in the country (PEQAB confirms this high quality experience for students).
Certainly, I would hope that Ontario colleges soon receive the funding they deserve to sustain their 45 years of exemplary post secondary training and education. Notwithstanding this, as the government seeks additional baccalaureate graduates, there are several Ontario colleges that are resolved to address this challenge. Colleges have the unique ability to increase access by providing a wide range of academic programming ranging from certificates through to baccalaureate programs. In fact, Colleges have the ability to retain and enhance their mission as access institutions by providing a full range of job-oriented credentials.
With additional baccalaureate graduates, colleges are well positioned to ensure student mobility between credentials actually takes place (unlike the current scenario where this simply is not the situation in almost all cases). As governments seek ways to increase the number of baccalaureate graduates, they need to look no further than Ontario colleges to achieve this desired outcome.
*Note: This private good vs. private good concept is an interesting, yet philosophical argument that will not be addressed in this article. To read more, please see this article in Inside Higher Ed.