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The Scandal of Canadian University Education: We can do so much better

By Adam Ashby Gibbard

Going to university is like drinking too much one night, blacking out and then waking up in the morning with A+ written on your face, a crumpled receipt shoved in your pocket for more money than you’ve ever seen and a vague recollection that you had a really interesting conversation with someone last night, but couldn’t remember what it was about. Time to get a job.

With ever-growing tuition rates, students who want to go to university are forced to gamble with their future at the very beginning of adulthood.

It’s no surprise that people want a good life and with university enrolment at an all-time high, it’s clear that lots of people see it as their best shot at that life. With 70 per cent of jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education, you can’t blame people for wanting access to most of the labour market. What you can do is question the government’s role in restricting people’s access to higher education and the role of post-secondary institutions in inflating the cost with pomp and circumstance.

If education is a vital part of a growing economy, why then does the government perpetuate a system that unfairly targets those that want a better life by saddling them with the cost? How responsible is it to build a society on the backs of the new generation who are becoming less and less able to access the benefits of that growth? Student debt mixed with high underemployment mixed with an ever-precarious labour market means a large part of the population will be left to drift in insecurity – something that will eventually have ramifications for everyone.

The state of young people in Canada today points at a dark future. A Prime Minister’s Office report in 2015 found that 40 per cent of university graduates aged 25-34 were overqualified for their job. With part-time and contract work on the rise youth under-employment is at 26 per cent. This generation will be the first since the industrial revolution to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Most students graduate with debt and the longer it takes to pay that off the longer they have to wait to start a family, buy a house and retire.

With government funding for universities at an all time low, it might shock you to find out that Germany, with free tuition, spends drastically less per student. Institutions of higher learning in numerous European countries have similarly low or free tuition, even for international students. Some countries even pay students to study. In Denmark students who are not living at home receive $1200 a month to help cover their expenses, an allowance which gives them the time they need to focus on learning.

As of 2014 Germany charges no tuition fees for university. A 2017 OECD report on education showed that it spends $12,555 per student per year on tertiary education (not including research and development). In stark comparison, Canada spends $18,748 per student per year. This figure doesn’t include tuition, which in 2017-18 averaged $6,571. So once you do the math (government spending + studen tuition = $25,319), you may well wonder “how it is that Germany can provide free education for half the cost of Canada?”

Looking at numbers like that, you have to sit and wonder what Canadian universities are doing with all that money. Part of it can be explained in how universities compete against each other – a rare form of competition in Canada between publicly funded institutions. Universities spend millions on advertising trying to woo students and otherwise look more attractive than other institutions that provide essentially the same education and services.

Universities have also spent billions on construction, upping non-academic student resources and fostering city-state-like campuses as part of this educational arms race. Do we really need 100-foot vegetable walls, Gandhi statues, Olympic swimming pools, all-you-can-eat buffets and hotel-esque dorms?

In the end, it’s becoming clear that students and society are the ones paying for this. Not only are they paying for it with money, but with their future as well. If the purpose of a university education is to learn, then the value added to the “university experience” is pointless as most universities simply double-down on services and facilities that already exist in the area.

All of these services and facilities also require much larger administrations. Students don’t usually even know about half of these services, much less use them.

Yet student desires are also fueling this fire as they feel that if they’re paying for it – or becoming indebted for it – that they should be catered to. Because of tuition, students have become customers.

Don’t get me wrong, universities are places where people can enrich their minds through scholarly pursuits, where professors are free to think and discuss, where knowledge is king and its creation a pillar of progress. You can go there to learn for the sake of learning, you can improve yourself for yourself, but universities have also become pandering playgrounds.

In Europe, most universities are just places of learning, plain and simple. They provide what students need and anything else, students find in town.

To add insult to injury, German parents receive an allowance until the child reaches 27 years of age, if said child is enrolled in education. And students from low-income families are able to access funds to cover living expenses. Similar programs exist throughout Europe, pointing to a societal difference in how postsecondary education is understood.

For many countries in Europe, postsecondary education is seen as a right – not that different from primary education and secondary school.

Also, most young people opt for Germany’s dual education system, which has students in class part of the week and in an co-op or apprenticeship for the rest. This connects theory with practice and leaves graduates with knowledge and experience. Students are also paid for their work, a far cry from Canada’s growing number of unpaid interns.

In Canada, you get to spend three to four years gaining knowledge with no concept of how it connects to employment. This leaves students with a significant skill deficit upon graduating.

Meanwhile, with mass classes taught increasingly by precarious contract instructors awarding inflated grades, students are receiving less for their education while spending more every year.

It might be time to reconsider pursuing a higher education at all or to consider alternatives – Germany anyone? At the very least we, as a society, should take a step back and reevaluate our values when we have an education system that costs so much and we demand people pay to go to school. As much as the government and universities are responsible, our collective interests are clearly not being served and we risk a generation being lost to the abyss.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).


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