Universities losing autonomy

Who has responsibility for education when students are paying the tab?

The Ontario government is taking enormous steps to catch up to the rest of country by allowing students to more easily transfer from university to university, from university to college and from college to college.

It’s a great effort and one that is nothing but beneficial to students by offering them more opportunities, more flexibility and more chances to figure out what it is they want to do with their lives.

But the trend it represents is perhaps more troubling.

The British Columbia government recently made a major effort to streamline research roles and tradesperson training in the province. By separating those streams into two respective ministries, the government found they were able to better control their output and economic contributions.

While the Ontario government isn’t quite moving in that direction, the increasingly centrally managed university environment in the province is a sign of the times.

More than 50 years ago, universities in Canada were largely autonomous. Many still had strong ties to the various churches that founded the cities and town in which the institutions were founded. Others were in the process of aggressive expansion, taking advantage of a glut of government money in the post-war years.

It was a time when universities ran themselves, but governments paid for it. Tuition was cheap, and education attained for education’s sake.

Over the past 50 years, though, and accelerating through the 1990s, the reverse has become true.

Universities are increasingly funded through tuition fees, residence fees, meal plans, bookstore sales and other private ventures. In Ontario, government subsidies now make up less than half of total university revenue.

Despite this trend, though, government is taking an increasingly active role in university management. From regulating degree-granting abilities, regulating fee increases, regulating administrative structure, government is now also involved in centralized application processes, student loan programs and centralized degree transfer programs.

Government is slowly taking over post-secondary education, but asking students to pay for it. And as post-secondary becomes increasingly necessary to functioning in the larger world, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.