As stated in Aligning Policy and Political Prose – Part 1, many political leaders have strategically declared the importance of higher education. Unfortunately, the policy and budget decisions practiced by many of these same government leaders do not always align with their stated support for higher education.
This perspective goes beyond overall funding commitments and includes how scarce public funds are allocated to institutions of higher learning. With respect to Ontario, I take the assumption that when a province has a multi-billion dollar deficit and record debt levels, it is not reasonable to think that significantly more funds will be going into higher education at any time soon. To that end, at a time when resources are scarce and the need for human talent great, it is time to rethink higher education finance and priorities.
Rethinking Higher Education in Times of Austerity
It is clear to most people that the Province of Ontario must return to a balanced budget. Public institutions must play a role in helping to achieve this objective. I can attest that at Algonquin College we have a long record of finding financial savings and creating process efficiencies. However, it is becoming very difficult to tighten a belt on a skeleton-like system. In my view, we have reached a point within the Ontario higher education system whereby we must address some real issues in the way higher education is funded in the province.
Ontario’s public colleges serve 33 percent of the province’s post-secondary (PSE) students yet receive only 28.7 per cent of the total PSE operating funding. Further, the college and university systems are funded in very different ways (simply not enough room in this post to begin to explain the complicated funding schemes). What is clear is that the current approach is neither rational nor fair but rather one that is rooted in history and perhaps institutional bias. If Ontario was truly committed to seeing more students enter and complete post secondary education, there would be more funds made available (or shifted) to institutions that openly welcome harder-to-serve, non-traditional students. In my view this includes some Ontario universities (historically, one good example is Carleton University) and certainly all Ontario Colleges.
As the province reduces funding to Ontario post secondary institutions, the way in which these savings are expected to be realized has raised some eyebrows. Recently, Colleges Ontario (CO) expressed concern about government funding reductions. CO suggested “Ontario’s colleges are being disproportionately affected by the provincial government’s recent budget reductions”. The Ministry of Training, College and Universities argues this point, however what is most important is the fact that any cuts to higher education in Ontario (already the lowest funded in Canada) will have a negative and likely a lasting impact on what has become North America’s best post secondary system.
The Courage to Have a New Conversation
One area in which we could start a new conversation about educational finance is to address the fundamental question: “What is the purpose of higher education”? Although this question reflects a centuries-old debate within the Academy, the question becomes less debatable when it is put before students. That is, if you ask students why they attend a higher education institution, their answer is clear: Students attend college or university because they want a job.
The good news for students is that jobs are available. The bad news for many of these same students is that these jobs are not available to them. Perhaps the worst news is that it appears many students did not realize their academic program and the jobs-mismatch reality before they signed up for four years of education (more with grad school) and committed tens of thousands of dollars for the experience.
The Skills – Jobs Mismatch
Canada has a significant skills – jobs mismatch; one that is contributing negatively to unemployment rates and to a terrible loss or under-utilized use of human talent. Although educational institutions are graduating tens of thousands of educated young people, many of these graduates do not have the skills and qualifications to find meaningful work once they graduate. Rick Miner’s influential research and other organizations such as CIBC have identified this as a real human resource challenge facing Canada. This jobs – skills mismatch is described in many ways including “Jobs without People – People without Jobs”. This Month’s Public Policy journal also highlights this skills – jobs mismatch in an insightful article by Ken Coates and Miner.
Yet this jobs mismatch is not a Canadian phenomenon. In America, there is also an overabundance of educated but unemployable graduates (including doctoral graduates). The same situation is occurring in Britain. In Ontario, I am becoming more convinced that Colleges are best positioned to support non-traditional students to enter higher education and graduate with a credential; a publicly assisted credential that will lead to meaningful employment.
Although universities have provided professional programs since at least the 1800s, there are more universities today that are beginning to realize that they do not exist for the purpose of instruction but rather they exist for the purpose of learning; learning that will result in real employment opportunities for their graduates. This must be the best of news for students and for the tax payers who underwrite higher education in the Country for billions of dollars.
The Change we Need
As we move through the second decade of the 21st Century, it is important that our public leaders re-think education and rethink how it is funded, particularly in Ontario. I often read public leaders lamenting the lack of change in higher education. For these individuals I welcome you to visit Algonquin College. I can tell you the learning occurring on our campus does not look like the learning that occurred even a decade ago. Further, I might switch the table in that I might too lament the lack of change in higher education but my concern is in the way these institutions are funded. In my view, it is time to have an open discussion about what is fair and equitable to those who are to be served by institutions of higher learning. In my opinion, they are our students and the employers who are counting on colleges and universities to supply them with highly skilled, employable graduates.