Premier Kathleen Wynne has begun her ten-day tour of Ontario’s universities and colleges, just after finally getting her meeting with Prime Minister Harper. Say what you like about Ms. Wynne, but she should not have to wait a year to meet with the Prime Minister. No man should be that ‘busy’, regardless of his own views of the current Premier of Ontario. However, I might suggest that Mr. Harper’s dilatoriness in meeting with his provincial counterpart(s) (the other ministers are in the same boat) is explained in part by the provinces’ insatiable appetite for money. Wynne and her fellow premiers show up at Parliament Hill with their hands wide open for hand outs.
On the topic at hand: One of the largest economic millstones around neck of provinces is the bloated university and college system, one of the largest beneficiaries of governmental largesse, and growing each year.
Students, and the public at large, do not seem to grasp this. There was a young man on the radio this morning bemoaning his $40,000 student debt; he completed a Master’s degree in some forgettable subject or other, and now, lo and behold, cannot find a job remunerative enough to even begin paying it off (he is working for the university, but apparently not making very much, and is soon to seek a merciful ‘loan-repayment plan’). He, with a multitude of other students, claim that tuition fees are too high, and must be lowered, so that students do not graduate with so much unsupportable debt. One may presume that they would desire no debt at all, with the entire cost, and subsequent debt, carried by Joe Public, you and me.
I have a vested interest in university education, having spent a good portion of my life in what some might say is a quixotic attempt to help found a Catholic liberal arts university, so I will have more to write on this topic. For now, we will focus on some basics of the economics of education.
Tuition fees too high, you say? Students at the University of Toronto, as a representative example, currently pay $5,865 to $12,363 for an undergraduate program, and $7,160 to $42,908 for graduate programs. Most students pay in the lower cost-range, with the latter, more expensive tuitions generally reserved to the ‘elite’ economically-advantageous programs like dentistry, medicine and law, whose student numbers are highly restricted. The tuition of the many thousands of undergraduates and graduates in general programs provide the economic ‘fodder’ to run the university.
But how much fodder do they indeed provide? Whether one considers these tuition fees ‘exorbitant’ or not, they do not come close to covering the true costs of the running the programs and the university itself. The operating budget of the U of T is $1.9 billion dollars. Doing some elementary math, one may presume that the tuition costs of the 83,000 or so undergraduate and graduate students bring in roughly $600 million or so (and this assumes they are all paying full tuition, which rarely happens with scholarships and bursaries). That leaves a shortfall of about $1.3 billion. Some of that is covered by donations, but by no means all. Who pays the many hundreds of millions left over? Yes, you guessed it, the taxpayer, funnelled in from the federal coffers in the form of ‘transfer payments’. This is the same story with all of the 98 or so publicly-funded universities dotting our landscape from coast to coast, with their nearly 2 million students; and this does not count all of the colleges and training programs which are, of course, also publicly subsidized to many millions of dollars.
The ‘debt’ that the young man and other students carry pales in comparison to the debt put on the taxpayer, subsidizing each of these students’ education to the tune of many thousands of dollars. As one reporter in the Globe and Mail argued, when one counts all the tax rebates, subsidies and so on, we more or less have free university education in this country.
But that comes at quite the cost, with our modern universities evolving over the past few decades into yet another governmental, socialist economic sinkhole. Yes, I agree, some of the money goes to good use, with valuable research and teaching, but even that could be done more efficiently. Much of the teaching is substandard and the research relatively useless or esoteric. What they teach (or should teach) I will leave for another column.
We should ask ourselves, what is the purpose of a university? Without a clear idea of their aim, universities will continue to flounder and squander money on a truly gigantic scale.
For a comparison, consider tuition at private universities in the United States, where students, theoretically, are asked to pay a larger portion of their educational costs: Princeton’s tuition is $38,650, Harvard’s $43,938, and even small, Catholic schools like Ave Maria, which strive to keep costs low in the spirit of poverty and helping large, struggling families, charge $17,196 for tuition (their professors make far less, and they depend more on such things as donations and student work-study).
So, in our effort to keep tuition artificially low, we in Ontario and throughout Canada are already funding universities to the tune of billions of dollars each year. This cost is compounded by the modern, egalitarian principle that every young person has a right to a university or college education. Of course, talents, gifts, and inclinations are not distributed equally, and many, if not most, of these young people are not cut out for university-level academic work. So rather than maintaining high standards and restricting the numbers, we lower the standards, and just funnel more and more students and money into a system that provides, in general, a woefully inadequate education, ensuring a persistently low standard, and one that is dropping with each passing year. Universities have become a four-year-plus continuation of high school, but without even the nominal supervision of family life and on-site teachers to moderate the passions of young adults, with the obvious consequences: rampant sex, drunkenness, laziness, drop-outs, absenteeism. Of course, those who do try to study face a rigid,politically-correct agenda that ensures conformity in an atheistic, hedonistic post-modern thought-system.
This is in an era where trades are under-represented, and entrepreneurism at a low ebb. Everyone, it seems, wants to remain in the warm embrace of our socialist government as long as possible, graduating from the government-funded university to a lavish government-funded job, before retiring in their mid-fifties on a gold-plated government pension, to enjoy full government-funded health care and benefits.
As I mentioned in the column on debt, this is a problem on a number of levels, moral, spiritual and, not least, least financial. I will reiterate, with the late Mrs. Thatcher, that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. Canada is is danger of becoming an economic basket-case, a spiral that is becoming most evident in bankrupt Ontario, which, unless something is done to stem the tide, will face a rather severe economic crunch.
And I have little hope that this tide will be stemmed by the likes of Ms. Wynne, who has little if any idea how to fix the problems, except to beg more of (our) money from Stephen Harper, and then throw more of this money at the ‘problem’, which, like oil on fire, will only exacerbate it. No wonder Mr. Harper, with his own economic woes, wants to avoid meeting with her.
There is not much on the agenda to redeem the modern university, which have become places of mediocrity and even vice in both the intellectual and moral sphere, and sinks of countless millions of wasted dollars. It will take more than Ms. Wynne can offer to clean out these Augean stables. We need a moral and intellectual Hercules, and, perhaps, a subsequent deluge, of one form or another.
January 10, 2015