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 Canadians’ living standards and consciences, but it sure hasn’t hurt university enrolments.”

Mr. Watson 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 the second question.

Consider the following:

-The increases in university enrolment to which Mr. Watson alludes are taking place as federal funding is decreasing. 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.  During that same 22-year period, PSE enrolment in Ontario increased by more than 60 percent.

Class sizes are increasing.  The 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.  During that same period, FTE enrolments per full-time academic staff at Ontario’s community colleges almost doubled.

-Student debt is increasing. For a four-year degree in Ontario, it 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, Canadian households are not in the same position to take on new debt today as they were 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, I would argue that Mr. Watson’s analysis of PSE could benefit from a bit more nuance.


  • Nick makes some good points, but I would have thought the most exposed salient in the quotes from Watson is where he weasles effortlessly from PSE graduates receiving “a financial payoff” from their diploma, which everyone can agree with, to their getting “far and away the bulk of the benefit from their education”, which is extremely debatable, and also automatically raises the issue of who exactly is it who is sharing this benefit with the hapless grad.

    Does the individual benefit derived from education really exceed the social benefit at all? I have no idea even how to approach this measurement, but surely there are some brainier quants out there who do. More to the point, though, can the individual derive any personal financial benefit UNLESS society does first? A mathematics degree even a generation ago was hardly a ticket to a private jet. But once Wall Street discovered a way to turn arcane equations into financial products that were as profitable as they were impenetrable, the financial benefit of a math degree hit escape velocity. Separating out the individual financial benefit when it is so clearly a function of the social benefit seems a wee bit circular.

    What’s always bewildered me, though, is why people apply Watson’s hackneyed reasoning to PSE, but not to high school. Surely the difference in lifetime income between high school grads and non-grads is proportionately even greater than that between PSE grads and non-grads. But no one (so far, at least) has suggested that therefore kids and their families should pay for their own high school education, instead of getting a free ride from an over-stretched state. Surely that’s because even Canada’s de-industrializing economy would quickly get the dry heaves if the average education of the labour force began to slip below grade 12. There is an economic benefit, in which we all share, and can all see that we’re sharing, in having an educated work force, and that makes public education a worthwhile social investment. But what is so magical about grade 12, then, that this increasing social value curve should start to bend back on itself?

  • Indeed. “Higher university enrolment does not mean equal access”: http://goo.gl/rf5l3

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