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The true value of education

Yves Engler has an editorial in today’s Gazette about what the Liberal government should do, in his opinion, to help make university education more accessible to students.

Engler, with his involvement with the past CSU and his far left political views, has frequently criticized government policy on education. Today’s editorial avoids some of his more radical views that he has put forth in articles in the Link, and sticks to a more reasonable position:

As a result of cutbacks and fee increases, the average debt load of Quebec residents graduating from an undergraduate program is $13,100 and climbing. Students from less affluent backgrounds are finding it increasingly difficult to attend university.

[ . . . ]

Around the world, governments are concluding that education is fundamental to society’s economic, social and political development. That is the reason the U.S. government has gradually increased its share of GDP allocated to education to the point it is now greater than Canada’s. It’s also why Ireland and Wales recently eliminated tuition fees.

Here in Quebec, to improve post-secondary education the new Liberal government should:

– Significantly increase funding;

– Maintain the tuition freeze;

– Prohibit further increases in ancillary fees;

– Gradually transform student aid from loans into needs-based bursaries;

– Progressively eliminate differential fees.

These steps would be a wise investment in Quebec’s future.

All very well and good. But here’s why I think that Yves Engler is wrong:

Engler is talking about education as a right. Everyone, he says, should have the right to a degree. I would amend that by saying that everyone should have the opportunity to obtain a degree. But not everyone should just have a degree hand-delivered and gift-wrapped. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth anything.

The government already funds elementary, high school, and here in Quebec even college education. And everyone has the right to go to university. Everyone even has the opportunity – provided, of course, that they earn it. Scholarships and financial aid are widely available to deserving students. Tuition is more than reasonable; in fact, it’s the lowest in Canada. And if Engler is griping about the price of a Concordia degree, he should try having to pay for an American university; he might appreciate the measly $2,500 a year that Quebec students pay a whole lot more.

What exactly is the “right” to a degree? Not all degrees are created equal. The value of a degree from Harvard, for example, far exceeds the value of the same degree from Concordia, even if the student worked equally hard to achieve it and obtained an equally high grade point average. Everyone knows this, and expects it. But why is that?

Unfortunately, the answer is usually money. The top professors are attracted by research funds or high salaries. The big donors will fund a university with an excellent reputation much more than one with a mediocre one. The top universities have lower student-teacher ratios, top facilities, and prominent professors and graduates.

University education isn’t simply a right, it’s an investment. And either way, society pays, with the expectation of a return on that investment. Where my opinion differs from Engler’s is in who should make that investment. Taxpayers already fund most of a university education for students. And I do agree that partial funding is necessary; other problems are created when tuition is allowed to spiral out of control. But what happens now is that students have absolutely no concept of the true value of their education. They grudgingly pay their $2,500 a year and figure that’s the cost, when in reality their education is worth many times that. This makes it easier for them to float around school year after year, not getting a degree, just wreaking havoc and never graduating and moving into the real world, because it’s so cheap. Maybe if tuition was closer to the true cost of an education, it would be more appreciated and people would take it more seriously.

Scholarships and bursaries can be helpful. But student loans are already low-interest and have flexible repayment terms. The reason that society funds education so heavily is the same as the reason students go to university in the first place: investment. And as an investment, it should pay off for students down the road, so why shouldn’t they be expected to pay off their student loans in order to give back some of that investment into society to help fund education for the next batch of students coming through?

If tuition were raised, more students could receive financial aid who need it. At the same time, the universities in Quebec would receive badly-needed funding in order to recruit top professors, fund vital research, improve facilities, and build a name that puts them in the top rungs of world-class educational institutions. And then everyone – graduates as well as wider society – would reap the benefits in the form of more business investment, better employment, higher salaries, and a more productive economy.

Obviously, governments are afraid to propose lifting the tuition freeze because of negative reactions by student unions and groups like the CSU or the CFS. The Liberals were afraid of losing votes if they campaigned on that basis. So until a government has the courage to say what needs to be said, and raise tuition to a more reasonable level, education will continue to be woefully underfunded, hampering our ability to compete on a global scale. That is the real tragedy here.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • jim 05.07.03, 6:35 AM

    Engler has a point.

  • yves 06.23.03, 6:36 AM

    hi Segac’s without ever stating it directly all that you understand university as is of an institution whereby one gets a “degree” for economic purposes, an “investment”. You need to broaden your understanding of a degree and then the arguments for free post-secondary education become more sensible. Similarly, there is class barrier that develops whenever you increase tuition (and the argument about increasing it for the wealthy to put it into scholarships simply does not materialize in the real world).

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