The Epistle of Q — Chapter 147

Trouble is brewing…and maybe you have missed the signs…

Well firsts of all, enough of political commentary for the moment. Whether I will come back and discuss the recent Liberal and NDP conventions is still a question for me. I didn’t attend either and the coverage and related editorial comments probably have given you sufficient knowledge to make whatever decisions or opinions you wish to hold viable and perhaps even valid.

I do want to comment though on a problem, the tip of the iceberg of which we have finally seen come into view on the public stage. I refer now to the unfolding drama in Sudbury concerning Laurentian University. Now I need to state, as a reminder, that I have had numerous universities as clients over the years and I have even been on staff occasionally at a couple as Sessional Lecturer or Guest Professor. Moreover I hold five degrees, although as is commonly known in certain circles, that is more due to my desire not to go to work than any overwhelming cranial capacity. Twas only the final degree, the Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Alberta, that required me to really work and consequently to actually learn a good deal about a number of things, especially ethical reasoning & critical choice – applied ethics!

But as much as I love the academy, the students, the learning moment I am not reluctant to point out some of the shortcomings of higher education. You know my basic concern that we have made university too accessible and too desirable. Far too many kids are pushed toward the place when they have really no right let alone deep desire to attend. We would be far better off as a nation if we had the same attitude as the Germans who give equal status to technical and trades training as to university. Consequently they have a broad sweep of very talented young people continually coming into the workforce and no one hangs their head because offspring are blue collar or non-college educated.

This fallacy on our part in Canada has led to a proliferation of universities where few if not none were really needed. BC and Alberta have been ludicrous in the willingness of government to anoint well run, useful colleges as pseudo-universities. For example: in Alberta there was Grant Macewan Community College along with Mount Royal College that were nationally recognized treasures turning out well-trained, technically competent graduates that filled many niches throughout society. But somewhere in the cold winter air someone’s brain got frostbit and the government decided to turn them into universities, even though the province already had four government-funded: two large nationally ranked schools, one more specializing in distance learning and a fourth small one in the city of Lethbridge (UofL). This is not including some of the smaller private universities. Now, with government funds severely stretched, cutbacks are in the works. The UofA, the biggest and best of them all, is facing a $170,000,000 shortfall in its budget – think about how that gets addressed. Certainly not by simply tweaking the budget of the Philosophy department. Now don’t cry for the UofA, it has a tonne of alumni who have done well (some, including a few classmates of mine, have done Alberta-super-well!!) and they will rise up and add to the endowments, or the scholarship campaigns, or some other aspect to help soften the blow. But what about Macewan and Mount Royal. They have next to no endowments and relatively few graduates, and certainly not very many really wealthy ones. Who will step up for them? Even the UofL may have some seriously trouble making up any real differences that will come about from pending cuts.

This is important because that’s part of Laurentian’s problems. They do not have a wide swath of graduates who are big donors. They do not have significant endowments. In fact, they were using research funds to keep the lights on for years. This is an institution trying to compete against the big boys, without any back-up strength. How soon before Lakehead and Nippissing experience the same pressures? The Ontario Technical University? Or even longer running institutions such as Brock or Trent or Windsor?

We have overbuilt our university capacity and we have over-convinced students of the value of a university education. It is leading us towards a perfect storm. In the Maritimes there are a number of universities – all small ones. But they have been around for decades if not longer. They have very dedicated alumni (some of whom are quite wealthy and not afraid to donate to expand the endowments, scholarships and research needs). They work very hard at working in partnership with the Community Colleges. They are well connected with their communities. I don’t worry as much about those institutions: should things start to go south, they will come together and figure out a solution. I also don’t worry as much about Manitoba or Saskatchewan as they have resisted the craze to birth untold numbers of universities – in fact Saskatchewan has been more focused on their technical institute and college systems, making sure they are located throughout the province. In addition they have encouraged the Aboriginal community to develop additional training & educational facilities to help address those needs.

But if Ontario, Alberta, BC and probably Québec (although I am not as well-versed in how their system actually works, though I have seen too many UofQ variants to exclude them from this concern) are now finding their Advanced Education budgets are too onerous, what will be the situation once we get beyond the Covid-19 trials and tribulations? And if these provinces have to reduce and contract their educational offerings, how might this influence the rest of the country? Maybe Northern Ontario only needs one northern-oriented university with a couple of colleges and multiple campuses of a central technical/trade institute filling out the offerings. Maybe Alberta needs to re-trench to its two big schools and the distance university. Perhaps it’s time for BC to support one Island university, two in the lower mainland and one in the north and that’s it!!
Maybe the Great Re-Set that is needed is for the populace to rise up and say: enough is enough. Let’s get back to a realistic division of educational and training needs, and re-build out from that.

There will be no good coming from a collapse of the post-secondary system. The needed research and development along with the concomitant inventions and beyond-the-realm ideas won’t happen if everyone is spending all their time trying to grab a wee piece of an ever shrinking and disintegrating pie. Laurentian is not a one-off. It is time for us to ask our politicians as well as our post-secondary educational administrators some very tough questions and demand very transparent and comprehensive answers. This pandemic has covered over in the news world much of the real problems we are facing – that doesn’t mean they have gone away. Just ask the tenured profs who after twenty-five or thirty years have just been fired. Just ask the students who now aren’t sure where or if they will be going to school in September.

As always,