Increasing affordable access to education -- or "educare", as it's now hearalded by left-wing student advocacy groups -- is a noble endeavour. And to a large extent they're right: Young Canadians should not enter their 30s with the equivalent of two mortgages: one for the house and one for student loan debt.
When it comes to tuition freezes, however, it should be obvious by now: governments and students are being forced to choose between quality education and cheap degrees. (I mean 'cheap' in more than one sense.) So let's dispell one common myth about frozen fees.
According to reports out of Manitoba and Quebec, tuition freezes have failed to bring more children from low-income families to university. In both provinces, university officials are reporting that, while overall enrollment figures are up (as high as 40%) since their freezes came into effect, there has been no noticeable increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. None. (It should be noted: the universities are not fudging these numbers. Statistics Canada provides them with the data.) Middle-class and upper-middle class students are the ones taking advantage of the freezes, according to these reports -- not poor ones.
This is not to say that bringing more middle-class children to university is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we should look at it another way.
Instead of pushing freezes as a socialist tool to lift up the lower classes, let's use them as a means of increasing the opportunities of those who most deserve it, those who can make best use of a university education -- regardless of their income.
Thus, as a learned friend told me this week, the solution to our crumbling universities may not be to raise tuition. This particular approach has failed miserably in Saskatchewan, where -- by all accounts -- NDP Premier Lorne Calvert's decision to lift the province's freeze has neither improved the quality of education markedly, nor stemmed the flow of students to Alberta and BC. And goodness knows, high tuition rates at the University of Calgary haven't stopped Maclean's from keeping it at the bottom of the university rankings.
Instead, let's raise entrance requirements to acceptable levels, allowing only the most qualified and dedicated students to attend, and allowing them to do so at reasonable rates of tuiton.
In other words, let's stop our universities from becoming glorified (?) high schools -- where everyone with a 60% average and a modest student loan can attend. This would reduce the number of 'casual' students, many of whom attend university simply for the piece of paper, and many of whom fail to earn even that. Community colleges and trades schools could shoulder the burden of increased enrollment, and the private sector could be leaned upon to provide financial support. And if students with low entrance grades -- let's say below 85 to 90% -- still want to attend university, they should have to pay an increased rate of tuition. If their grades improve while in university, they could 'earn' a lower rate of tuition in subsequent years. This is the equivalent of a built-in scholarship system for high-achievers, and the profits made from the differential fees program could be used to fund bursaries for low-income students.
For universities, this would decrease class sizes, increase the quality of classroom learning, and increase the overall value of degrees. It has the added bonus of encouraging our best and brightest high school students to stay in Manitoba, not to mention luring those from out-of-province. Maclean's might take notice and move Manitoba's schools up their list of top universities (entrance requirements factor prominently in their formula). In short, it would mark a return to the quality of education we enjoyed only a few decades ago, before tuition freezes turned our universities into Grade 13 and sent our finest minds elsewhere in search of better education.
To me, there's really only one choice here: if you want to keep tuition freezes in place, you have to increase entrance requirements.
In Quebec, it's understandable that the Charest Liberals are reluctant to lift the tuition freeze -- young people in that province are among the most politically-engaged in the country, and they are among the most likely segment of society to vote for the PQ in an upcoming election. (The threat of separatism trumps poor universities any day.)
The same pressures simply do not exist in Manitoba. While the Opposition Tories have removed the "unfreeze tuition" policy from their platform, there's no way they would oppose NDP legislation to lift the cap. As for student pressure -- While lifting the freeze may anger Student Unions across the province, their ability to resist would be hampered in two ways. First, as unfortunate as it is, Manitoba youth are among the most politically disengaged in Canada. While thawing tuition may mobilize some SU cronies and left-wing activists, there's nowhere else for them to turn come election day. The NDP won't lose votes on this issue; like Harper with the Oil Patch and Income Trusts, Premier Doer can simply say to his base, "the guys on the other side of the aisle would do much worse." Second, students are far from unified when it comes to the tuition issue. Several hundred at the UofM have actually banded together in support of raising tuition fees for Engineering and Law.
Kudos to them. It's sad that the Manitoba government isn't siding with these students instead of listening to its socialist base. If it intends to keep the freeze in place, to spare students from the huge burden of debt and maintain affordable access to quality education, there's only one option left to save our universities: raise entrance requirements. Expecting more from our students doesn't have to mean demanding more from their wallets. Serious students -- the ones who most deserve to attend university -- would never disapprove of that.
Thursday, February 15, 2007