Go ahead and dismiss the Quebec student protestors as petulant brats. After 16 weeks of broken windows and dented cookware, it does occasionally seem like a mass temper tantrum. Bemoan the provincial government for both its early attempts to appease and its later attempts to oppress. The fight feels irrelevant if you don’t live in Quebec. It feels especially self-indulgent if you’re a couple of decades, a decent haircut and several thousand mortgage payments removed from campus life. It’s easy to become fed up with the whole farce. But before you do…don’t.
The fight in the streets of Montreal is a bloody, brutal version of a debate all Canadians should be having with less rancour and more reason. We desperately need to talk about post-secondary education. Not just about the price tags, but how to actually make colleges and universities better. Better at offering students a return on their investment and better at meeting the needs of the Canadian economy. This shouldn’t be about whether Quebec students need to pay $1,625 more tuition. It should be about whether their education is useful. And the price Canada pays when it isn’t.
Canadians are often preoccupied with our public health care and apathetic about our publicly funded schools. But our universities might just be in as rough shape as our hospitals. “The trends are for classes to get larger, for courses to become less available, and for more and more teaching to be done by sessional and itinerant teachers,” said Harvey Weingarten, president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, in a speech last year.
Students are less satisfied and less engaged than their American peers, says Weingarten. They are also graduating with more than $25,000 of debt, on average, into a job market that offers little chance of paying it off. Meanwhile, the Conference Board of Canada found this country placed eighth out of 16 peer nations for the production of scientific articles, one key contribution universities make to the economy by driving research and development.
More money alone won’t solve these problems. In fact, over the past 15 years, government support for university operating expenses has more than doubled, and there’s been a fourfold increase in federal funding for university-based research, according to a 2011 study by the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada. What’s needed is not just fresh funds, but fresh ways of doing things, from an emphasis on internships and co-operative education programs to a recognition that not everyone needs a university degree.
Universities need to recognize they can’t be all things to all students, that there is value in some focusing on undergraduate education and others on research. Most important, this conversation needs to happen between students, governments, industry and citizens. Yelling at each other in the streets won’t solve anything.