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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

A university degree’s value is incontestable Add to ...

Almost half of Canada’s full-time university students – 46 per cent – study in Ontario. So how students fare in Ontario is a reasonable measuring stick for the whole country.

It’s sometimes argued that university education is a waste of time. Students in the humanities and social sciences, in particular, are going to find that the “market” doesn’t match their skills.

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For starters, two years after graduation, almost 94 per cent of graduates of fine and applied arts programs had a job in 2008, the year the recession hit. In that same very bad year, almost 91 per cent of humanities and social science grads had jobs. By comparison, according to data from the Council of Ontario Universities, 95 per cent of engineering graduates and 94 per cent of health grads had found work.

So, yes, the more scientific a student’s training, the greater the likelihood of finding employment – but not by much. And compared with everyone who did not attend university, those who did are the lucky ones, whatever their field of study. Put another way, the gap between income and prospects for humanities versus science grads is way lower than between all university grads and those without a university degree.

It’s worth bearing this incontestable fact in mind after watching the most startlingly incomprehensible event in Canada this year – at least to those who try to see the world rationally: six months of demonstrations in Quebec. There, students already paying the lowest fees by far in North America took to the streets in large numbers to reject paying modestly more (which would have still left Quebec’s fees the lowest on the continent) and, in some cases, to reject paying any tuition fees at all.

Drunk with their own street power, the leaders of the most militant of the student groups vowed last weekend to keep up their “class struggle” (their words) because they represent “the people” (again, their words), although every public opinion survey suggests that an overwhelming number of Quebeckers disagree with the students’ position on fees. They vowed to make their position heard on behalf of “the people” (read: themselves) throughout the provincial election campaign expected to begin shortly.

Students in Quebec, and elsewhere in Canada, should check with Statistics Canada. In 2009, according to data from the agency’s Labour Force Survey, those with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 5.2 per cent, about 2.5 points below the national rate. Those with graduate degrees were doing even better, at 4.6 per cent.

By comparison, those with only a high-school degree had a jobless rate of 9.1 per cent, and those with only “some” high school faced an unemployment rate of 15.9 per cent.

In money terms, those with a high-school degree earned on average about $17,000 less per year than those with a BA and about $21,000 less than someone with a master’s degree. The income gap between those with university credentials and those without starts slowly in the first few years after graduation, but after a decade, the gap is wide and stays there.

So whether you measure by the rate of employment or income earned, going to university and graduating improves income and everything that accompanies higher income. Students and their parents understand this truism, which is why entrance demand for universities (and colleges) remains strong.

In Ontario, the government has been pushing more and more students into the university system. Between 2000 and 2010, enrolment grew by about 50 per cent. Expenses per student also grew, in part because faculty costs tend to rise at about 4 per cent a year (basic salary plus promotions through the ranks). More students and higher costs per student, however, were not matched by corresponding increases from government.

The basic operating unit, the way of measuring money from government per student, stood at $5,042 in 2000 and $5,442 in 2010. Higher tuition fees, among other sources of additional income, filled some of the funding gap.

So far, nothing like the Quebec protests has arisen in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada because university attendance, even with higher fees, remains such a good investment for so many.

 

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