Winders: Make sure debate about tuition costs is rooted in reality

Paul Mayne // Western News

As the father of three under 4, I worry. Constantly. About everything.

So, let’s just say I noticed when media outlets across the country reported last week on a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study that predicted Ontario postsecondary tuition and fees will increase to $9,483 by 2017. That would stand as the highest in Canada, a three-fold increase since the late 1990s.

Gulp.

Even though postsecondary tuition is 14 years down the road for my family, the thought of three in university simultaneously – including, thanks to The Twins, my own personal ‘double cohort’ as a friend joked – sends pulses of panic down my spine. I look forward to any conversation about rising costs – if only to aid any hope of nightly sleep.

But I want to be sure that conversation is a fair one – rooted not in the past, but in what we expect out of universities today.

Whenever the ‘cost of higher education’ discussion arises, universities shoulder the blame. During the ensuing debate, normally intelligent people forget about what a university education provided for them and instead eye ‘greedy professors,’ ‘bloated administrations’ or some such strawmen as the main culprits.

I get that. Universities get the cheques; they also get the blame.

And yes, it’s difficult to defend tuition/fees costs rising at multiple times inflation for the last two decades.

But let’s pause and consider indexing tuition not against inflation, but against expectations over that same period. Universities are no longer charged with simply teaching students ‘to think’ so they can carve out an individual path in the world.

Far from it. Universities are now expected to turn out ‘innovators’ and ‘entrepreneurs’, craft ‘leaders’ and set down specific career paths for each student. Forget the Ivory Tower, universities must partner with business and industry, as well as the local community, to make the world a better place. Corporations downloaded industry-specific training onto postsecondary institutions long ago. Students no longer expect an education, they demand an experience as universities provide them with an amazing array of social stimuli and non-academic social services.

And that’s just the start.

Now, consider all this must be done in an environment where politicians call postsecondary education a priority, and then tug at its funding.

Even the most ardent critic must admit the game has changed.

That said, even as a proud postsecondary honk, I offer no defense to the charge universities could do more about tuition/fees. Like many industries – health care, newspapers, entertainment – postsecondary education clings to its processes, bureaucracies and traditional structures, and layers the future upon those things instead of rethinking and reorganizing. They still try to provide a classic one-size-fits-all university experience in a world that increasingly does not always demand it.

Smoother credit transfers among colleges and universities. Online prerequisites. Adjusted program lengths. How about incorporating more non-traditional students (mature, part-time, non-degree) in the mix outside our traditional schedules? And why exactly in a digital age are kids spending hundreds of dollars to buy physical books, for many, the first they have ever purchased?

The sector has discussed these, but rarely in the context of revolutionary change.

Go ahead, put those on the table when discussing tuition/fee costs.

But alongside, let’s talk about ways to pay for postsecondary education like better organized student aid systems, up-front education tax credits paid like the Universal Child Care Benefit, and, perhaps most importantly, government funding levels which have been decreasing as tuition rises.

Tuition/fees costs do not exist in isolation. Therefore, any response is not as simple as demands for university belt-tightening (as you inevitably hear), but requires a systematic reordering of priorities from all involved.

It’s a tall order. However, our advantage is that there is no single better investment a person can make in themselves for their future. Universities still offer a tremendous return on the dollar.