What is the value of higher education?

This is a question made all the more relevant by the Ontario government’s recent decision to lower tuition fees for colleges and universities by 10% and cut OSAP.

Sabrina Zuniga PhD. Montreal QC

This is a question made all the more relevant by the Ontario government’s recent decision to lower tuition fees for colleges and universities by 10% and cut OSAP.

The expressed rationale, of course being “to balance budgets and to help out students.”

Let’s explore this a bit.

When you saw the title of this post, what answer came to mind?

What is the value of higher education? Do you immediately think of earning more money? Getting a better job? Having a successful life?

These are probably all correct in some form or another, but exactly what the value is will be different for each student.

I submit to you that the true value of higher education (any education after high school that ends with you getting a degree, diploma, or maybe a certificate) is not just to give you a better quality of life, but it is also valuable to our economy because it raises the human capital potential of our population.

So, how does this relate to governments? When governments make judgments about spending – any spending – the question always arises as to the value of that spending- What do we get for it? What’s in it for us?

Hence my initial question to you - what is the value of post-secondary education?

Who benefits the most if we have more of it in Ontario?

Do you think higher education is purely for the individual? Or is our society the greatest beneficiary when little Susie graduates in the Spring?

To begin to answer this question, consider the history of post-secondary education and especially the past 100 years in Ontario.

Basically, whenever higher education is seen to benefit society, governments are happy to put more money into it. But when education is seen to benefit the individual, governments will often cut funding and tuitions rise.

Most people have this whole thing backwards. They believe that tuition increases and funding cuts are caused by reigning governments or political parties, but that’s putting the horse before the cart. Instead, these things truly stem from whichever mindset rules the day.

Until quite recently in the history of mankind, it was rare to have any breadth or depth of knowledge unless you were rich, or part of the church. The first university with a structure that would be recognizable to us today was the University of Berlin, established in 1810.

In Ontario, the origins of university are traced back to 1827 to the granting of a Royal Charter for King’s College in York (or Toronto as we now know it). At that time, the beneficiary of post-secondary education was seen to be mostly the individual.

This “higher” learning was considered Elite and was meant to “shape character” not train for a specific job. If you wanted to study something technical and concrete like medicine or law, that was a different path.

After the Second World War, the mindset shifted. Post-secondary education was seen as a public good because as a society we needed to train all the young men coming home from combat.

What do you think would have happened to them if we didn’t educate them?

This question hung in the air in the post-war period, and motivated a complete change in thought from post-secondary education as benefiting the individual to benefiting society.

Education in Ontario was made more and more accessible, with this trend culminating in the establishment of the colleges system in the 1960s. Thus, the government invested in the Province by ensuring a healthy, competitive workforce existed in Ontario, leading to a productive economy and of course, a healthy society.

On the other hand, when students in the ’70s rebelled against the government and a recession hit, officials saw students as not appreciative of what taxpayer dollars were providing for them and very soon afterwards, government funding started to decline. Higher education started to again be considered for the individual good. Is history repeating itself?

In the mid-1990s there is another recession, and further cutbacks to government funding of higher education. University and College education continues to be seen more as something for the individual than society.

Ironically, through all these decades, government interest in accountability increased as their contributions declined. The reason for this increase in accountability?

To justify public spending and prove value for money spent. So, government officials begin seeking to prove the value of post-secondary education spending.

Finally, fast-forward to today. There’s a lot going on.

Here are the questions we need to ask.

Does higher education make our society more productive and economically competitive? Or should we treat education more like a consumer good?

I believe that the educational system adds value to the individual student, making them more competitive in the workforce, and adds value to the greater economic system of which the student is just one constituent part.

Today, our world is changing faster than ever. The workplace is changing faster than ever. Having well-educated people is our insurance policy for the future.

We need our governments to support post-secondary education because while individuals benefit, our society is the ultimate beneficiary, and the economic and social benefits of a strong homegrown workforce of smarter and more productive innovators and job-creators cannot be understated.

What do you think? Who benefits from having higher education - the individual? Or society?

Should the government place more priority on supporting higher education, or less?

Having stated my case, when it comes to setting government policy and deciding budgets, many factors come into play. This is what I alluded to earlier.

The Ontario government in 2019 is working to get the huge budget deficit under control. And, other big factors for Ontario education right now are demographics and the reduced need for higher-ed spots.

Did you know that less and less of us are enrolling in programs year after year?

Many universities and colleges rely on recruiting international students to fill up spots.

Does this change your opinion? Join the conversation by commenting below!


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