Writing in the National Post, MLI senior fellow Ken Coates and co-author Bill Morrison write that while a major expansion in university spaces announced by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently makes for good politics, "This latest (over)investment strategy is shockingly disconnected from workforce realities". Coates and Morrison, the authors of the new book, "What to Consider When you are Considering University", argue that "The addition of 60,000 spaces will bring a surge of weaker students into the system, contributing to higher dropout rates, less interesting undergraduate classes, and more degree holders of lesser ability". It would be much more efficient, they point out, to directly support students in "underserved areas" than to add the equivalent of two Western Universities to the system.

By Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, April 7, 2014

A recent news release from the Government of Ontario, although re-stating old news, invited universities to "submit proposals for new or expanded campuses in under-served areas." The goal: add 60,000 university spaces to the already large Ontario system to permit more students to study closer to home. This announcement is a one of two things: an early April Fools' joke or an impending provincial election. Picking up from former Premier Dalton McGuinty, who never saw an educational commitment he did not like, Premier Kathleen Wynne appears determined to return to university inducements to boost the Liberal party's electoral fortunes. These bribes, which is what they were — particularly the tuition rebates hastily announced mid-campaign — were costly vote-getters during the last election. The Liberals clearly believe they will work again.

The clever thing about this strategy is that the government wants communities and universities (and perhaps even colleges, as partners) to develop the strategies for expansion. By pitting city against city and institution against institution, the government will get communities across Ontario working hard to win government favour — useful, during an election year. What is particularly politically smart about this approach is that it will take months for most communities and institutions to put plans together, and even longer for the government to evaluate them (although there are leading proposals already in hand, like that for Milton, a growing city on the western edge of the Greater Toronto Area). In the short term, the Liberal government will be seen as a generous post-secondary Santa Claus, ready to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars to lucky communities.

This latest (over)investment strategy is shockingly disconnected from workforce realities, unless all of the new campuses are going to focus on the very expensive programs in highest labour market demand. There is little evidence that there are 60,000 talented and motivated university-age students who are unable to get into programs close to home. As for expansion, when the availability of spaces expands, two things happen: Students who study at a new institution close to home will not have to relocate for degrees, meaning existing institutions — Trent and Lakehead, for example — that will have more trouble attracting a sufficient number of qualified students. Secondly, adding 60,000 more spaces inevitably means less qualified students. Universities seeking to pay the bills — and enrollments are the only financial game in town — will have to accept them.

This is already happening. According to Maclean's, the cut-off point for entering students is 70% in most fields at Trent, Laurentian, Nipissing and Lakehead. Brock is the same (Commerce is 80%). Carleton's is only 75% in most areas, compared to Western (86%), Queen's (80%+) and Waterloo (79%). The addition of 60,000 spaces will bring a surge of weaker students into the system, contributing to higher dropout rates, less interesting undergraduate classes, and more degree holders of lesser ability.

There is an important issue hidden in this policy, although the promise of new institutions will not address it. Young adults from low income families who live in under-served areas do need assistance. Students in this category already underestimate the potential value of a university education, and do not participate at the same rate as those from wealthier families. A talented student from a family that earns $40,000 a year in Kitchener has two fine local universities to choose between. Someone in a similar academic and financial situation but living in Moosonee faces, even with student loans, a formidable challenge. But there are other ways of addressing this issue. If the province wants to help students from underserved areas, direct support for applicable individuals is vastly preferable.

The bitterly frustrating part of the proposal is that it restates the old McGuinty mantra that Learning = Earning, and that a degree, any degree, is a ticket to the middle class. This vision is full of holes. There are excellent opportunities for graduates with specialized academic skills or a professional education, but pumping tens of thousands more graduates with generalist degrees into an economy that is already discounting these degrees helps no one. Remember that the 60,000 students equals two universities the size of the Western University. With underemployment rates for university graduates already shockingly high, flooding the employment market with more graduates is seriously bad public policy. One hopes, finally, that it will also make for bad politics.

Ontario needs a serious rethink of its post-secondary education strategy, preferably to one that places greater emphasis on polytechnics. But it's important to be careful here. Post-secondary education students move in a great swarm, invading programs (Education, Law and Commerce) that are perceived to provide ready access to a decent career and a high income. The success of certain college and polytechnic programs face a comparable fate if Ontario Liberal-type policies hold: "Students in these programs are getting great jobs, so let's triple the number of students in these fields."

The result, of course, is that, in a few short years, there are too many graduates in those areas, driving down wages and ruining the programs' job-placement rates. Simple principles of labour force economics that appear not to be part of the Ontario government's post-secondary planning. But then, it is clear that these announcements, rather like power generating stations, appear to be based more on electoral planning than good public policy.

National Post

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison are authors of What to Consider When You are Considering University, released this month by Dundurn.

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.

Donate Now Through CanadaHelps.org!