Myopic Focus on Tuition and Debt is Missing the Bigger Deal

A wave of budget cuts and tuition increases across the country has put post-secondary education in the news in recent months.1 The tuition increases in particular have students rallying and protesting. This makes sense; they are in the midst of their programs and feeling the effects as they take on more paid work and larger student loans to finance the escalating costs of their education. They are staring down student debt that average almost $19,000, an increase from $15,000 ten years ago.2

The ideal is that everyone should have access to affordable post-secondary education. Youth are told they can’t “get anywhere” without it. Our federal and provincial governments state it’s needed to fuel a “knowledge based economy.” Our society and economy benefit from an educated population. So the more people we can get through post-secondary the better.

Right?

What’s interesting to me is that the argument for ceaseless expansion of post-secondary education functions as a very effective distraction from much more fundamental issues that are routinely overlooked or ignored by post-sec stakeholders. These include:

  • a lack of secure, quality jobs
  • significant increases in “precarious labour” (that’s crappy part-time, temporary and contract work)
  • credentials and relevant experience not as objective requirements to do a job well, but as “gate-keeping” or “screening” tools when there are too many qualified people chasing too few jobs

Good jobs are (it seems obvious to say) needed for economic survival. Yet the attention we focus on the education presumably needed to get these good jobs functions very well to obscure the reality that there are not so many good jobs to go around.

So you really have to wonder about this whole “knowledge economy” thing. Critics have argued (and from my own research I concur) that the knowledge economy and the skilled labour it requires is more about speculation than empirical certainty. Hence – like an ex of mine who talked a good game but just couldn’t seem to commit3 – the knowledge economy and all it promises is always coming, but never fully arrives.

UK academics Brown, Hesketh and Williams made the following assertion in 2004: “The demand for high skilled, high wage jobs has been exaggerated. But it is something that governments want to believe because it distracts attention from thorny political issues around equality, opportunity, and redistribution.”4

So we can make all the noise we’d like about tuition increases, student loans, and threats to the quality of post-secondary education. But this is a myopic perspective that seeks to “fix” a system without challenging the veracity of its underlying logic. The questions we ought to be asking are more like these:

  • Why has expensive formal post-secondary education become the only route to “good” work, especially when it contributes, in many cases, to labour market mismatches, and over-qualification?
  • Why is useful continuing education and on-the-job learning available only to some working adults?
  • Why does our present political and economic system fail to provide all adults who need it with opportunities for decent, secure work at a living wage?
  • As Brown, Hesketh and Williams (2004) ask, when it comes to access to work and learning opportunities: What’s fair? What’s right?

We need to start thinking of education, continuing education, and work much more imaginatively. At present, the boundless expansion of post-secondary education is folly – an expensive leap of faith that can only reproduce present patterns of big winners and big losers in the pursuit of “good work.”5

1Recent media on Alberta’s post-sec tuition increases and cutbacks in the Calgary Herald: http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/Alberta+colleges+hard+budget+layoffs+looming/2554702/story.html

2Statistics Canada (2010, January 29th). Study: The financial impact of student loans. The Daily. Retrieved February 14. 2010 from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/100129/dq100129c-eng.htm

3I’m over it… really. And no, Jerry, I don’t mean you! 🙂

4Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. (2004). The mismanagement of talent: Employability and jobs in the knowledge economy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p. 6).

5It should be noted that on balance, the more education you have, the more you’ll earn. So I do not wish to overstate my case. But it is also true that measures of central tendency typically used to measure employment outcomes and education-related debt can obscure still-significant deviations from the “average.”

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