Improve post-secondary education access and results

Dylan Hewlett
Dylan Hewlett

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As part of the recent federal budget, the Harper Conservatives are proposing a jobs training program that would transfer federal tax revenue to the provinces in order to funnel people, particularly young Canadians, into sectors experiencing significant job shortages.

Despite being scant on details, the program has raised the ire of the official Opposition and has been particularly controversial in Quebec, where the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) government views jobs training as its exclusive jurisdiction.

Regardless of the relative effectiveness of the program, which cannot as yet be assessed without knowing all the details, this jurisdictional battle is unhelpful and distracting. 

This is a period in Canadian history when young people are more educated - and more out of work - than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of young people are entering the job market with undergraduate degrees, and most of them are being met with the cold shoulder of employers. Alternatively, they are left standing before a marketplace that is intent on chugging along without their particular skills.

These young Canadians are working as baristas in coffee shops, customer service representatives in electronic stores and at supermarket deli counters from coast to coast to coast. 

This state of affairs has led Maclean’s magazine to speak of Canada’s “new underclass” - those possessing all the drive and potential skill for gainful employment but have found themselves toiling away in the service sector to make ends meet. It has been the focal point of much public policy debate across the country, with different social movements, political parties and advocates all proposing radically different solutions to the problem.

This is a period in Canadian history when young people are more educated - and more out of work - than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of young people are entering the job market with undergraduate degrees, and most of them are being met with the cold shoulder of employers.

When the Quebec student movement erupted last summer over planned tuition fee increases, the Liberal government under then-premier Jean Charest was brought to its knees as young people across the province stopped attending classes and took to the streets.

The protests resulted in draconian measures taken by the Charest government through the much-maligned Bill 78. Violent clashes with police became common in the streets of Montreal until, of course, the premier called an early election and the PQ won a four seat plurality in the National Assembly.

The PQ had promised to reverse the tuition fee increases - the leader of the party, and now premier, Pauline Marois brandished the iconic red square for much of the campaign - which managed to shore up support among young voters.

But the government under Marois is now facing the same dilemma Charest confronted last spring: a poorly performing economy, startling unemployment among educated young people and tuition fees that remain the lowest in the country.

It is beginning to sink in for the PQ that the protests were propped up on a flimsy foundation. As part of early concessions to student groups, the $325 annual increase in tuition fees would not have applied to students whose families make $45,000 a year or less.

In short, those generally excluded from the halls of higher learning would have had their tuition frozen for the foreseeable future. Almost any question of access, then, was automatically excluded from the debate when this concession was made.

With access to post-secondary education unaffected by the tuition increase - the first increase Quebec had experienced in over a decade - the students turned to, or re-focused on, the issue of debt. However, the notion that the wealthiest students in Quebec could not take on some modest level of debt in order to fund their studies is ridiculous and a reflection of an education culture that has lost its way.

Tuition fees that at least keep up with inflation, and any debt accumulated through student loans, provide an important incentive for students. When combined with the workings of the market economy, these mechanisms at their best help ensure two things simultaneously.

First, because students must pay for their studies, universities can provide freedom for students to choose programs that do not provide direct measurable benefit to the economy. Second, because the market determines which professions will be profitable, students have an outside incentive to move into departments or trades that will get them a job when they graduate.

These mechanisms have broken down in a radical way in this country, and much of that break down can be attributed to a cultural shift.

Young people grew up being told that university, not college or apprenticeships, was the best way to achieve a better life. Post-secondary education in general is, in fact, a minimum requirement but that does not connote a degree in sociology or women’s studies.

Canada faces a growing number of students taking advantage of the freedom of the education system and its low tuition fees to enter university on the basis of a dream of prosperity that no longer corresponds with reality.

Regardless of their lack of leadership on multiple fronts, the fact that the federal Conservatives are attempting to alter this state of affairs should be welcomed rather than scorned, and I hope other governments will take the lead in order to ensure more young, talented people are employed in Canada.

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2013

Published in Volume 67, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 28, 2013)

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