Canada’s education news is currently being dominated by the protests of Ontario public school teachers amid fiscal cuts. But this has not stopped some determined post-secondary researchers from releasing reports on recent study findings. Not surprisingly the bulk of the reports suggest how institutions should spend limited financial resources during austere times.
It seems that as money becomes scarce, post-secondary education advice is infused with investment metaphors: Should institutions invest in high-performing students, permanent instructors or high-enrolment programmes?
This is problematic, as it presents a false sense that education funding is a zero-sum game in which administrators must finance the most lucrative venture.
True, limited resources guarantee that not every area will receive funding. But it is essential that the three components – students, instructors and programmes – be viewed as parts of a valuable social contract that embeds higher education in society, rather than as competing investment opportunities.
Entrance scholarships are a long tradition in Canadian schools, rewarding high-achieving students by offering money as an incentive to draw them to a university.
However, a recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) has determined that entrance scholarships have little impact on student success at university. The report recommends that “resources could be better directed to higher quality programmes or more instructors”.
In a culture of investment metaphors, student scholarships are a risky financial investment that does not guarantee a return. Yet entrance scholarships have significant benefit beyond their potential as investments.
They should be valued for the loyalty they build between students and institutions; they are a recruitment tool to draw students, a reward for students’ high school performance, and a source of funding as students piece together tuition fees.
The above report’s suggestion of funding more instructors is frequently heard in Canada. The bulk of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent faculty who earn low wages and have little job security.
This month’s University Affairs report outlines the precarious position of many contingent faculty and the need for permanent contracts and benefits.
Though many advocates are pushing for better conditions for these instructors, few improvements have been made by universities. Institutions do not seem persuaded that investments in staffing will benefit their institution.
A ready supply of unemployed PhDs are willing to teach undergraduates, and universities are not forced to pay more for the work they receive. But the supply-demand paradigm that keeps instructors poorly paid is a race to the bottom in terms of quality.
Institutions that commit to paying their instructors a living wage will benefit from an environment of consistent instructors interacting with students over multiple years. Moreover, the friction of labour relations that has defined the contingent experience in Canada may see a decline.
Universities are also faced with the decision of what programmes to invest in. Departments with higher enrolment and better student employment are often given preferential treatment.
But a recent critique of programme prioritisation suggests that humanities and classics may cease to exist if investment-style accountability measures are followed too rigidly.
This, of course, is not a problem if one is merely looking for a lucrative investment. But it is a problem if one values the philosophical and ethical contributions less lucrative departments make to society.
As is evidenced by the constant development and complexity of quality assessment tools, there is no single post-secondary education investment that will ensure governments and institutions make the most of their money. Institutions will always face pressure to fund students, instructors, programmes and more – none of which can guarantee a 12% return.
The investment-like qualities of post-secondary education are ambiguous at best and it is essential that institutions revisit the broader purpose of higher education as a social good in order to determine the real importance of fundable areas.
* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.
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