Recent analysis has shown that up to 70 percent of new jobs in Canada in the next ten years will require a post-secondary education, but, despite overall attainment averages that rank amongst the best in the world, there remain clear gaps in attainment within particular populations (most notably Indigenous peoples). Though Canada’s post-secondary education attainment rate stands at an impressive 27% of the total population at last count, there is still both room and incentive to improve, both for the sake of individual learners and for the future economic and social prosperity of the province as a whole. However, too much of the university system in Canada remains static and in thrall to a vision of universities that dates from a bygone era and a limited cultural perspective. In order to bridge these gaps, Canadian policymakers should consider learning from other countries, such as Germany, and develop new models for university education.
In seeking expanded access to higher education and the individual and social benefits it brings, we must be cautious to not repeat the downfalls of the recent past or to create new problems that will require their own solutions later. Most notably, with the increase in post-secondary enrollment, there has been an accompanying rise in average student debt loads, which both represents a personal stressor for students (in many cases leading them to not finish their degree) and an overall drag on the economy in terms of money that is not spent on new assets (such as homes and other major . The rise in student debt is, in part, due to a lack of compensatory rises in government funding to address rising numbers of students, meaning that universities are increasingly relying on student tuition dollars as a larger part of their operating budgets. Both individual universities and provincial and federal governments have attempted to address potential effects on educational access created by rising tuition by instituting a variety of scholarship and bursary programs (such as the recent doubling of the Canada Student Grant in the federal budget).
What Should a University Be?
The often-bureaucratic nature of these aid programs, combined with the high headline cost of tuition can often be a dissuading factor, particularly for students from families not accustomed to navigating post-secondary options. At the same time as this, there has been a large increase in administrative and other non-academic operational costs at universities within the past decade, often representing the biggest cost drivers at individual institutions. Some of this increased cost reflects average salary increases at the upper management level, but a greater percentage is new hiring. Though doubtless some of the services provided by these new employees are useful for some students, it is a question worth asking if a new model of university operations is not worth at least experimenting with in light of these concerns.
Looking to comparable jurisdictions to Canada which offer free or near-free post-secondary education, there is a model of post-secondary learning which puts an emphasis on controlling costs, minimizing non-academic functions (and thereby constraining bureaucratic bloat) and fostering strong linkages between educational institutions and local industries/employers to avoid “skills gap” situations. The German post-secondary system is a very successful example of this. The key difference as compared to Canadian universities is that such systems offer little in the way of services beyond academics, with “campuses” usually consisting of several buildings scattered throughout a city. Students wishing to participate in activities such as sports or debating alongside their university studies can still do so, but must access such resources in the community. This in turn encourages a greater sense of connection between students and community, lessening the divide between university campuses and their surrounding environments.
Currently, universities in Canada are all, to varying degrees, within the English/American university model (with the university seen as a self-contained, fully-serviced community unto itself) and thereby are not serving to the best of their ability the wide variety of both needs and preferences of students in the modern context. This is not to say that such styles of institution have no place in Canada’s post-secondary landscape, but under the status quo, they saddle many students, particularly non-traditional, part-time and commuter students, with paying for services that they do not use or want. Students should be able to choose options of post-secondary learning, and at a price point, that fits their situation and intentions. This model may also be increasingly unsustainable for universities themselves, as demonstrated by the recent insolvency declaration of Laurentian University.
Post-Secondary Training is Essential
Though it may have been possible to classify post-secondary education as not being merely a “nice to have” in the past, it is very clearly so now. Canada’s economic competitiveness in the future will depend on the growth of high-tech, value-added sectors which require a highly-educated workforce and high-level of research activity. Investments of this type are consistent with the recommendations of the Naylor Report, and various third-party reports on the status of the post-secondary sector in Canada.
The federal government should therefore be willing to collaborate with provinces to provide funding for one or several “new model” universities, based on the German approach. These would be low-cost, no-frills, purely academic options for students that nevertheless maintain the high-quality learning standards expected of universities in the country. Presenting these as an option would give greater flexibility to learners, both traditional students and others, and help to reduce student debt burdens, whilst expanding educational opportunity.