Intervention versus the open market

In the Anglo university model, it is never quite clear how involved the government is allowed to be in university affairs. Although the strong emphasis on institutional autonomy stresses the power of universities to set programming priorities and policies, governments often play a regulating role that has serious implications for university operations.

The recent provincial government intervention in Ontario’s teacher education programming is one example of government action that will dramatically change the sector.

Stakeholders are, of course, divided on whether these changes will be a marked improvement or not. But the changes are coming and the government has asserted itself in regulating professional programmes to meet labour market needs.

Labour market interventions

There seems to be a recurring blame game that ensues when graduates of professional programmes find themselves unemployed.

This was the case at one of the sessions of the recent “Worldviews 2013” conference, co-hosted by University World News, in which student activists and journalism professors had a rather heated Q&A time about whether journalists are born or made.

The students demanded more support from institutions to find jobs, and the faculty retorted that students’ excellence and determination are truly the keys to employment.

In due course the issue of teacher unemployment in Ontario was referred to, being – as always – the flagship example of disjuncture between university credentialling and the labour market. Unlike in journalism, however, teachers must attain the required education degree to work in their field and the government holds much sway over how this happens.

Funding and regulating

Ontario educates almost 3,000 more teachers each year than there are available jobs. Recent studies have shown that almost a third of teacher graduates will not find work in their field.

The recent government plan promises to cut the provincial enrolment in half, credentialling 4,500 rather than 9,000 teachers each year. Most stakeholders see this action as necessary to ensure the employment of graduates. But for some universities, this means the loss of revenues brought in by newly created teacher programmes.

While decreasing the number of teacher candidates will improve the job prospects of graduates, this change is part of a broader package. The government is also increasing the duration of teacher training from one to two years.

While this decision costs students an extra year of time and tuition, a two-year teacher programme is said to harmonise with other countries in the world, making students’ credentials more transferable.

These changes, however, are accompanied by budget cuts. The government will be decreasing its per student payout to institutions, shifting teacher education grants to match other professions, like social work and law.

It is evident that this package of changes will usher in a new era of teacher education for Ontario, one tempered by government intervention.

Should governments intervene?

In much of the world, even in an era of free-market economics, the answer to this question is yes. Teacher education is tightly linked to the state, being a publicly funded professional programme, and the number of teachers employed is also under the purview of governments.

Clearly, government intervention is the obvious outcome.

But there are those who continually call for a laissez-faire approach, suggesting that the market would eventually correct itself. Indeed, the number of applicants to teacher colleges in Ontario has dropped over the past year, suggesting that students are catching on to the poor job prospects and choosing other options.

Also, government intervention does not entirely control labour market overflow. Canadian students can easily access United States teaching programmes and find transferable credentials if they are willing to pay for them.

But more likely, market-based corrections alone will not provide the fix for Ontario’s teacher unemployment. After all, the market seems to have landed Ontario in this dilemma in the first place.

As in many jurisdictions, universities have been doing more with less and have turned to teacher programmes as revenue-generating degrees in which students willingly enrol. Governments have allowed the student demand for programming to overpopulate the labour market.

It is time for governments to own their education systems, helping to regulate the number of professionals without decreasing funding and jeopardising quality.

* 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.