As even the American folks who read this may be aware, students in nearby Quebec have been protesting for several months because the provincial government proposed raising their tuition – already the lowest in the country – by about $700 over the course of several years.
I haven’t been following it that closely, because I find it embarrassing. But we noticed a poster in our neighbourhood advertising the leaders of the student unions (two out of three of whom, by the way, attended expensive private schools throughout their primary and secondary educations) speaking in Ottawa and started chatting about it.
I mean, okay – if someone had offered me free tuition, I would have taken them up on it… or would I? Repaying our combined $90,000 of debt has kind of sucked (although we collectively earned four degrees – two Bachelor’s and two Masters – out of it). But those degrees allowed us to get careers in our fields that we love (okay, mine’s tangentially related, but I definitely apply the skills I learned, if not the factual knowledge). And to be fair, we could have graduated with less debt if we had worked more (Eric) or travelled less (me). Going into debt allowed us access to the funds we needed at the time.
If my tuition had been free, would my education have been as valuable? Would my classes have been (even more) full of people who didn’t want to learn about critical thinking and complex systems analysis, but figured that they needed a degree to get a job? How would the university bring in revenue for paying teachers, subscribing to journals, building infrastructure?
I think that access to debt is more logical than free tuition. Of course, I don’t mean that tuition should balloon and we end up paying crazy amounts like they do in the states – I think it’s amazing that our government puts a priority on post-secondary education an subsidizes it as much as they do. But I think that if you value post-secondary education, you should be willing to shell out for it to ensure that the quality is maintained. Going into debt is borrowing from your future income. Once you’ve graduated and found a job, you can pay for your degree.
The rebuttal to this, of course, is that a university degree no longer guarantees a job. I completely agree, but guess what? That isn’t what a university degree is meant to do. A BA in Philosophy should by no means be a ticket to a job (unless you want to become a philosopher, and if you know anyone that’s hiring those, call me!). But if you want post-secondary education that will prepare you for a job, you should probably do a college degree (NB – in Canada, college would be the equivalent of a community college in the US, I think – more practical, hands-on learning as opposed to esoteric bull sessions about Kant).
Our jerk parents accidentally sold us a bill of goods in this respect, because for their generation, a university degree was rare enough that it was a valued indicator to employers that you were a relatively competent person, and so it often did get you a job despite offering little to no practical skills. But by the time we got there, everyone else’s parents had told them the exact same thing, and so your BA? Useless.
Employers, of course, now expect a university degree for every position, but why is that? Is it just because everyone has them, or is it because our secondary educations are missing some essential skill? Maybe we should be taking a harder look at what kids are learning in high school, and if that bar could be raised. I certainly can’t ever remember being challenged in high school (except socially).
Really, most people getting a university degree wouldn’t need to (and might not want to bother) if it weren’t for the expectation that everyone have one. I think that a lot of people would be better off doing a college degree, especially if they know what job they want to go into. But now the same cycle is occurring with Masters degrees, and eventually I suppose we’ll all be Doctors. When will the acronym madness end?!