Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's election promise of a $1-billion a year postsecondary tuition subsidy was greeted with thunderous applause from students at Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ont. Dubbed the "learning passport," the program would provide tax-free grants of $1,000 per student for up to four years, with an additional $500 a year for students of low-income families.
Mr. Ignatieff, a long-time professor, asserted that colleges and universities are "the engine room" of the Canadian economy. That may be the view of those surveying the scene from academia's ivory towers, but other Canadians know that the real economic engine rooms are staffed by workers whose taxes pay their wages.
But there can be no disputing Mr. Ignatieff's point that a great many jobs are going unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. The question is: Will tuition grants increase the number of students entering programs that provide the knowledge and skills needed for these unfilled jobs?
Unfortunately, the answer is clearly no. Universities are already turning away a great many applicants for in-demand professions. As I noted when writing about this subject last fall, Statistics Canada says that in the 2008-2009 academic year, engineering, mathematics, information technology and other sciences represented only about 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments. Up to half the applicants for these programs are being turned away, despite having high grades in the required high school courses. Getting into Canadian medical school is even tougher - the acceptance rate is less than 25 per cent. No wonder so many med students pay huge fees to pursue their dreams at foreign universities. Most will never return home.
Unless universities shift some of their enormous budgets to these in-demand programs, increasing taxpayer-financed tuition subsidies will do nothing to produce more graduates with the skills vital to our country's economic future.
The "learning passport" plan is a classic case of politically motivated spending that focuses on the symptom, not the problem. In fact, this plan would make the problem worse by subsidizing tuitions for areas of expertise that our economy doesn't need, exacerbating the number of underemployed, or unemployed, "educated" Canadians.
More than twice as many students are being accepted into programs with poor job prospects (such as visual and performing arts, humanities, social work) than in the sciences and health care. An OECD report last year highlighted the failure of Canadian universities to respond to the needs of our economy. It compared graduates in 11 industrialized countries as to their ability to obtain employment that actually used their university training. Canada ranked second worst (ahead of only Spain), with 38 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 29 "working at low skill levels," the report found.
As the old joke goes: The engineering graduate asks, "How does it work?" The science graduate asks, "Why does it work?" The accounting graduate asks, "How much will it cost?" The arts graduate asks, "Do you want fries with that?"
That a liberal arts education is a personally enhancing experience is not in dispute. But taxpayer financed tuition subsidies should focus on turning out graduates in fields that will enhance our country's future prosperity.
Subsidizing programs that doom graduates to menial jobs while restricting admission to in-demand professions will only make matters worse - both for graduates who can't find jobs, and businesses that can't fill them.
Cash-strapped, deficit-ridden federal and provincial governments need to re-examine the whole concept of universal, taxpayer-financed handouts. Why would students from what the Liberals call "mid-to-high income families" need another $1,000 a year on top of the huge amount taxpayers already pay toward their education?
It's long past the time for
politicians of all political stripes to focus on ending universal handouts to those who don't need them. And while we're
figuring out how to do that, let's not start new ones based on the same unsustainable model.
Governments should focus their spending on those who really need it, and programs should be structured to actually accomplish stated objectives. The Liberals' "learning passport" plan would fail on both fronts.