Wanderings – The worrying world of post-secondary education

I am sure many people are used to saying the phrase “back when I was in school” but in this case it is completely appropriate.

Many years ago, when I was in school, post secondary choices were rather simple. It was the 1990s and the puppy mill that was the public education system funneled as many people to university as possible. At least in the school I went to, there was a stigma for those not destined to go to university, or who chose not to.

Many years removed, the public education system has changed. There is more attention to the trades; college programs are promoted more, and there appears to be more of a balance between all these different streams. With our youngest now entering the final months of high school, we’re also entering our final months of dealing with college applications. We’ve got the process down to a science after the first three kids. Still, the future in post-secondary education is worrying.

Much of Ontario’s college network was built by then-education minister Bill Davis in time for Canada’s Centennial. Universities have grown and expanded too. All this in part, because of the baby boom.

Ontario has 23 universities and 24 colleges that receive some form of public funding from the province. Those schools have grown over the years to many campuses and programs. In fact, they’ve grown to be larger than the Ontario population can really support on its own.

Tuition has doubled since I went to college a few decades ago – more than doubled in a lot of cases. Provincial funding has gone up, but not nearly by the same rate. Tuition is capped and students are not paying the full amount that they should be according to the finances. That’s great for students and the families that support them – not so great for the schools. If government funding is not going up to where it needs to be, and tuition can’t be increased to where it needs to be – schools face a funding issue.

Until now, foreign students have filled in the difference and it’s been a win for all sides. Those students pay higher tuition which covers the budget shortfall. However it’s not as much of a win for foreign students as we all think and it’s getting worse.

Many schools don’t allow foreign students to apply for school residences, so they have to enter the rental housing market. Some unscrupulous landlords take advantage of that situation. Foreign students are not allowed to work more than so many hours to support themselves because they are supposed to have enough money to do so when they arrive – except they don’t.

Student visa requirements for how much savings were required had artificial requirements that were much lower than what is actually needed to live and go to school in Canada. This has prompted some students to access food banks to be able to eat. This isn’t all students stories, but it’s not just a few affected either. Some pundits claim this has also contributed to our housing affordability crisis – I disagree, but that’s a topic for another column.

Now the federal government is capping the number of foreign students allowed visas to help reign in some of the problems – much to the protest of some provincial premiers including Ontario Premier Doug Ford. With fewer foreign students, and tuition increases capped, provincial funding is not meeting the financial needs of the education system.

In New York State, many universities and colleges are reviewing and dropping programs – right-sizing to fit the needs of what students they have and what programs will support the school. Ontario universities like Queen’s have already warned of potential extreme financial issues.

The simplest fix is to take the cap off tuition, which will make post-secondary unaffordable to more students. That will not solve anything in the short or long term. Higher prices and fewer students will just perpetuate financial issues at schools already circling the drain.

Right-sizing schools makes a lot of sense. Why are colleges from Northern Ontario operating with satellite campuses in Toronto? Why does a college need three campuses spread out across 200 kilometres, offering largely the same programming?

Prioritizing post-secondary school funding over unneeded highway projects or government subsidies for businesses also makes sense, but that is just nonsense in the current political climate.

Ideally, there should be a balanced approach, sustainable government funding, affordable tuition at a school that is the right size for the programs to be delivered, and opportunities for students from outside of the country to be educated here too. I am sure we’ll have such a system, right after our youngest begins making these choices for his own kids, a few decades from now.

This column was originally published in the January 31, 2024 print edition of the Morrisburg Leader.