William Watson on PSE
On Wednesday, William Watson wrote a comment piece in the Financial Post in which he was critical of Armine Yalnizyan’s recent essay on inequality. In his piece, Mr. Watson alleges that Armine “is guilty of fantastical reminiscence,” particularly with respect to her take on post-secondary education (PSE). Among other things, Mr. Watson points to the fact that PSE enrolment has increased very substantially over the past half-century in Canada. He also states: “Inequality may be ravaging Canadiansâ€™ living standards and consciences, but it sure hasnâ€™t hurt university enrolments.”
Mr. WatsonÂ also asks the following:
“But does anyone seriously disagree that a university education brings a financial payoff to those who get it? If so, why is it a problem for ‘fairness and social justice’ if those who will receive far and away the bulk of the benefit of their education are asked to help pay more of its cost?”
Allow me to take a crack at answering theÂ secondÂ question.
Consider the following:
-The increases in university enrolment to which Mr. Watson alludesÂ are taking place as federal funding is decreasing.Â Between 1985-1986 and 2007-2008, annual federal cash transfers to Ontario for PSE (in constant 2007 dollars) decreased from roughly $1.4 billion to just under $1 billion.Â During that same 22-year period, PSE enrolment in Ontario increased by more than 60 percent.
–Class sizes are increasing.Â TheÂ ratio of full-time equivalent (FTE) students per full-time faculty member at Ontario universities increased by 47 percent between 1987-1988 and 2007-2008.Â During that sameÂ period,Â FTE enrolmentsÂ per full-time academic staffÂ at Ontario’s community colleges almost doubled.
-Student debt is increasing.Â For a four-year degree in Ontario, itÂ has risen by roughly 175 percent in roughly the past 15 years.
-As David Macdonald and Erika Shaker have recently argued, in light of rising levels of household debt,Â Canadian householdsÂ are not in the same position toÂ take on new debt today as theyÂ wereÂ 20 years ago.
-Rising student debt affects students from racialised groups especially hard, as they are more likely to require student loans and more likely to have higher student debt upon graduation. This exacerbates inequities between groups.
In light of all of the points I’ve just outlined, IÂ would argueÂ that Mr. Watson’s analysis of PSE could benefit fromÂ a bit more nuance.
Nick Falvo is a Calgary-based research consultant. He has a PhD in public policy.