Take a page from history

Stimulus packages should invest as heavily in post-secondary education as they did after WWII

Matthew Lombardi, ArtSci ’10
Matthew Lombardi, ArtSci ’10

Last month, we saw both of the teams campaigning for AMS executive promise to stop the snowballing trend that has us as students paying more for less, as budget cuts continue to cripple academic programs and tuition continues to rise.

But the facts paint a grim picture. Ontario ranks near the bottom in Canada in per-capita funding of universities and in student-faculty ratios. Alex Usher of the Educational Policy Institute recently declared that “institutions themselves are going to have to make real and painful decisions about cost-cutting. … This isn’t going to be pretty.” To exacerbate problems on our own campus, the Queen’s Centre boondoggle adds an extra layer of financial chaos and the Queen’s University Faculty Association recently negotiated a new contract that the University cannot afford to pay without severely crippling the quality of our education going forward.

But reality shouldn’t be this grim. Amidst all the talk of economic stimulus dominating the headlines worldwide, our political leaders seem to have overlooked the fact that education is, in the long term, the single best proactive investment possible for the economic stimulation of any society. So where does that leave us, solution-wise, for our current predicament?

Albert Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems using the same kind of thinking that created them. In that spirit, we cannot allow the provincial government to continue providing the sort of inattentive patchwork solutions that have plagued post-secondary education in the past few decades. A cursory scan of Canada’s history will show that it was in the post-WWII boom years that Canada solidified many of the most identifiable aspects of our welfare state. What is less known is just how much the government’s emphasis on post-secondary access and investing in human capital contributed to completing and solidifying the economic turnaround.

Peter Neary and Jack Granatstein’s book The Veterans Charter and Post-World War II Canada details how the federal government placed a priority on reintegrating Canada’s war veterans into society, largely through subsidizing post-secondary education across the board. Obviously, Canada’s current crop of students don’t exactly qualify under the “compensation principle” or the “principle of recognition for service” that prompted the mass subsidies for post-secondary students in that era. But the basic idea of pouring stimulus monies into post-secondary access, rather than just infrastructure, is the type of innovative solution that Ontario needs to adopt. The principle remains the same today as it once was, as then-minister of Veterans Affairs Ian Mackenzie described university education “as an exceedingly important part of the rehabilitation programme [for individual veterans] … [with] ‘broad implications’ for the future development of Canada.”

Broad implications, indeed.

The federal government fulfilled its obligation to WWII veterans by investing heavily in higher education, subsidizing former military combatants’ education and stimulating our country’s economy long-term. A few weeks ago, Stephen Harper’s federal government announced, in its annual budget, $2 billion for Canadian post-secondary institutions in infrastructure funding, with no parallel commitment to student access. That commitment must now come from the provincial government.

So what is the would-be saviour of higher education to do? Instead of “reaching higher,” the McGuinty government needs to reach further—into their history books, that is—and examine the federal post-WWII model. Ontario must make a commitment to invest significant stimulus package money for subsidizing post-secondary education in fields that it deems pertinent to our economy long-term, such as green technologies and clean energy. These are the sorts of industries that Ontario will need to sustain long-term economic recovery and growth. Government subsidies for student access and financial aid should be looked upon as an investment, not a burden on the provincial budget. Our political representatives need to hear us loud and clear over the course of the next year. They must invest in us, the human capital that will stimulate the economy far more effectively in the long term than any auto bailout ever could.

If history can teach us anything, it is that the patchwork solutions of the past few decades are not working. The time is now for Ontario students to begin mobilizing our advocacy efforts to make sure that the province produces a smarter, more proactive economic remedy.

Matthew Lombardi is the AMS academic affairs commissioner.

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