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Like the rush to buy new running shoes for the kids and the shortening of summer evenings, the last days of August routinely bring a wave of commentaries questioning the value of a university education, bemoaning the cost of tuition and lamenting a supposed bygone golden age of higher education. More recently, these have been coupled with articles suggesting that today's graduates are ill-prepared for the work force and that universities are failing to advance Canada's research and innovation agenda.

While it is true that tuition has increased in recent years, so too has the value of a degree. The income premium of a university degree is large and growing. University graduates will on average earn $1.3-million more during their careers than a high school graduate and $1-million more than a college grad. And contrary to what you read in the papers, there are jobs for university graduates. Between July, 2008, and July, 2012, there were 700,000 new jobs for university graduates, compared with 320,000 for college grads and a net loss of 640,000 jobs for those without postsecondary education.

Student debt is a serious issue we should all work to address, but it is important to note that more than four out of 10 students graduate completely debt-free. For those who do have debt, almost one-third owe less than $12,000. How do we make sure that the balance among private value, public benefit and access is appropriate?

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We typically overestimate the cost of a degree and underestimate its value. In a world of greater uncertainty, a university education remains the surest path to prosperity for Canadians.

One of the greatest public policy achievements of the past three decades is expanded access to high-quality higher education. Once the preserve of the elite – in 1980, only 10 per cent of young people attended university – full-time enrolment has since increased steadily so that this fall, one in every four young Canadians will be enrolled full-time. Indeed, university enrolment has grown by more than 50 per cent since 2000 alone. In fact, undergraduate enrolment surpassed the one million student mark for the first time last fall. Canada will need all of them, and more, to offset the retirement wave that is already under way. In the next 20 years, six million Canadians are set to retire. Many of those jobs, as well as new jobs being created in an increasingly knowledge-driven world, will need to be filled by university graduates. Public investment to ensure today's students get the quality education experience of previous generations is essential to the country's economic strength in the years ahead.

Frankly, public investments have not kept pace with the dramatic expansion of enrolment. In fact, on a per student basis, provincial support for university operating budgets remains at the same level as it was in 1997. You read that right. Twenty years earlier, government operating support averaged $22,400 per student, but by 1997, it had fallen to $11,600 and it has stayed at that level ever since. It can be argued that universities today are delivering substantially more with substantially less.

The development of co-op, internship and work placements – both in industry and broader society – has become a distinguishing characteristic of the university experience. Once an opportunity in a few programs at a few universities, today more than half of all students will have the opportunity of putting ideas to work during the course of their studies. These students benefit from this early exposure to the working world – as do businesses benefit from a ready source of new ideas, approaches and energy.

With more than half of Canada's faculty hired in the past 10 years, campuses have a new generation of professors providing their students with opportunities for hands-on research experiences – experiences that excite the imagination and help build a culture of innovation. Going to university is more than a rite of passage. It is an opportunity to engage in the pursuit of ideas and research that generates new knowledge, which can then be transformed into products, processes and services. The research environment is a critical training ground for students. The ability to identify a problem, test solutions and apply new knowledge in related areas is the very definition of innovation and at the heart of the university mission. Research transforms how we think, act and live.

Federal investments in research and innovation since 1997 have provided Canada with an extraordinary platform upon which to conduct leading research that benefits Canadians and the world. These investments are integral to ensuring Canada a prominent place in a globalized world. More important, they are an essential component in finding the new discoveries and nurturing the talent that will lead to enhanced economic prospects for all Canadians. And perhaps most importantly, learning in a research-enriched environment provides university graduates with the 21st-century ideas and skills that today's employers want – and need.

Oh, and those back-to-school running shoes you're buying? They're better than ever, thanks to the work of university researchers, including those at the University of Calgary's Human Performance Lab – home to one of the world's leading experts in the biomechanics of sports shoes.

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Paul Davidson is president and CEO of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

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