It has been a pretty interesting year for politics - just a year ago we had some very significant municipal elections nationwide, in May we witnessed the federal election which brought the Conservatives to power in a majority government, and now we are only a month away from an Ontario provincial election.
I can't help but feel exhausted when thinking about another election campaign. And I'm someone who enjoys the culture of politics in Canada immensely. It gets me thinking about our nation's political landscape, more specifically the realities of federalism in our country. With the turnover for our governments being so short and with the presence of three layers, it is not surprising that not only are people overwhelmed, but they are also rather confused about everything from political parties, to how different levels of government interact, to how elections work. It's enough to cause some serious headaches for many.
One of the biggest solutions to this problem is also one of the parts of our public infrastructure that is under threat in Ontario: education. I aim to talk about both public education and post-secondary education in this post, but I will try to stay concise and focused.
Let's start with the post-secondary education system. In Ontario, we have a mixed private-public partnership for operating and funding universities. While tuition in Ontario is relatively inexpensive when compared to tuition in the United States, the province actually ranks LAST in terms of cross-Canada rankings. What's interesting is that fees have also gone up substantially in the past fifteen years, easily outpacing inflation. That previous link is to an HRDC report which outlines many stats about affordability, including the effects of students carrying more debt on average.
While this is a trend that is nationwide, Ontario has been particularly hard hit. The tuition freeze in Ontario has been a contentious issue, with the Liberals oscillating on what is to be done. While the modest growth in the cost of going to school is viewed as unfair by most students, there is a growing demand for tuition fees to be decreased. Unfortunately, universities have been underfunded by successive governments, there is an increase in private funding. The privatisation of public institutions should be worrisome for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it generally results in university being less affordable, particularly for those who are already economically marginalised in our society.
Privatisation of course carries other problems, and the one that I think is dangerous is a change in the way that curricula are developed. This has been an exceptional problem in a lot of schools in the United States, prompting a leading writer on eduction Martha Nussbaum to pen Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. While I have yet to read this book, I managed to catch an interview by Michael Enright of CBC's The Sunday Edition. In this segment, she argued very articulately that liberal arts programmes in America (and by extension Canada) are facing a crisis of funding. In many colleges and universities the curriculum is being modified so that students in programmes such as business or engineering are no longer being forced to take credits in philosophy, languages, or history, where they would be subject to learning about ethics, perspective, or the ongoing struggle for social justice. Nussbaum's main thrust is that it is a grave error to support technical skills while leaving out critical thinking, something which, as a social scientist, I agree with wholeheartedly. One of the strongest pillars of our democracy is our schools.
What's fascinating here is that a new book written by two Canadian university professors called Campus Confidential: 100 startling things you don’t know about Canadian universities has a chapter devoted to the scary trend that universities and colleges are rapidly becoming very similar. This, in my opinion, is a significant problem of universities becoming increasingly larger and run for profit. Moreover, its emblematic of the fact that universities now are in the business of acting as a career path, not a path for enlightenment or self-discovery.
So, what about public education? Well, all I really have to say about this is let's keep looking at the effects of cuts and privatisation at the post-secondary level. If we are unhappy with where our colleges and universities are going, then we need to rally behind strong public schools. For more information about privatisation in schools, have a look at some of the following non-academic resources:
The Canada eZine - Education
ETFO - Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario
Canadian Union of Public Employees
Let's make sure this is a campaign issue that gets a lot of attention. Talk to your MPP or find your candidates!