A labour shortage. A climate crisis. A world remade by COVID-19.
Canada faces many significant challenges emerging from the pandemic, yet we haven’t figured out how to wield the full power of one of our most potent yet under-the-radar economic and societal forces.
That would be the students either staying in this country or moving here to access some of the best universities in the world. These are the people who will carry out new research to address urgent problems such as climate change and the pandemic response; who will learn new skills and develop new businesses as technological disruptions reshape entire industries; and who will, at this pivotal juncture in the rebalancing of global economic powers, help to ensure Canada is at the leading edge of new and emerging talents and technologies.
And yet, as our students and universities navigate this moment, you could be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the vision of political leaders at any level to ensure their success. Part of that may be a function of a world ablaze with hourly headlines highlighting the fallout of COVID-19 and the increasingly urgent effects of climate change. But part of it might be the ideas on offer from conference to conference, election to election—a perennial mix of proposals aimed, for the most part, at reducing student debt or simply increasing access opportunities.
Student debt is absolutely a priority issue worth tackling, especially as the pandemic adds another layer of complexity to post-graduation job hunts. But the tendency to reduce the debate around the future of post-secondary education to this one concern alone means we are missing the wider picture of what is at stake.
Accessibility is important, but the quality of the student experience—which includes the academic programming, extracurricular activities, facilities, and social and health supports available—is what should set us apart. This is particularly true at this moment: the sector is facing increased global competition from universities in Asia that have grown tired of losing some of their brightest people. Just as the pandemic has reshaped entire industries, it has given rise to new challengers in the education space who are offering online degrees, credentials, and a faster route to citizenship—one that can sometimes come at a great cost.
It’s clear, then, that Canadian institutions need to continue to innovate and offer experiences that cannot be replicated in such environments. But for the last decade, Canada’s public spending on post-secondary education has stagnated as other countries take action to boost their sectors in the wake of COVID-19.
With that context in mind, the kinds of ideas on offer in Canada betray a short-sightedness that risks undermining one of our country’s greatest forces. Far more than making higher education more accessible to individual students, far more than leaving them with less debt from their learning, we are talking about the future of our economy, society and the kind of country we want Canada to be on the global stage.
In that respect, we are failing as a nation to have the kind of serious debate our students and universities deserve.
Public investment in higher education not only prepares us for new and emerging threats like disease and climate change, it encourages the businesses and talents of tomorrow: In the last decade, businesses incubated at the University of Waterloo have raised over $3.5 billion. These ventures have accelerated growth in our economy in critical areas such as health and education. Now, as governments reconcile massive stimulus spending with the realities of balancing a budget, the pandemic has also made it clear that cutting funding to universities cannot be the answer.
So what is? How do we ensure that the financial resources available to Canadian universities are commensurate with the positioning we seek on the global stage? That they are secure and stable and don’t rely on the politics of any one federal or provincial government? That they reflect the very real ways in which institutes of higher learning can and do connect research with solutions to the world’s most urgent problems?
Allowing more flexibility to adjust tuition rates at an institutional or provincial level, freezing interest rates on student loans, tax incentives, spending on work-integrated learning programs: these are all ideas worth considering. What is needed, though, is a more coordinated and urgent discussion on how to proceed with these ideas in a way that transcends political cycles.
Lurching from one plan or idea to another every two to four years serves neither the interests of Canada’s world-class post-secondary sector nor the students who will go on to shape our nation’s future. As other countries make moves to capitalize on their universities’ ability to create knowledge and talent, we cannot afford to wait until another conference, another election, or even another day, to figure this out.
Vivek Goel is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo