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Is the government devaluing education? Or have we all played a participatory role? (Article 1 of 3)

By Neil Gonsalves (M.Ed) - Edited by Leandre Larouche of Trivium Writing

This is the first in a three article series exploring the interconnectedness of government labour policy initiatives and higher education. Please check back for the next article in the series coming soon. 

“You're going to mess up. So instead of trying to be perfect, learn how to be accountable.” - Whitney Goodman

Premier Doug Ford’s progressive-conservative government in Ontario has been sharply criticized for a lack of commitment to education. According to Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation in a Toronto Star op-ed stated, “This government has made cuts to education by the billions time and time again, instead of investing in Ontario students and the public education system. Since 2018 Ford has been intentionally underfunding and underspending in education.” Premier Doug Ford’s unpopularity has not been limited to the secondary school system, he also has his share of critics among post-secondary administrators.

In a Toronto Star article, columnist Martin Regg Cohn argued that Ford’s cuts to post-secondary education has put Ontario Colleges and Universities in a state of crisis. He stated that “the system has been slowly starved of cash for more than a decade under both Liberals and Progressive Conservatives… Ontario has refused to raise grant levels, dating back to Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government. That freeze was reconfirmed in April 2023; before the freeze came the cut, an unprecedented tuition reduction ordered by the government in 2019 ― entirely at the expense of colleges and universities.” Given the fiscal constraints, college and university presidents have been challenged to keep their respective institutions financially viable in the midst of a perfect storm of rising inflation, freezing grants and forced tuition cuts.

If the direct impact to the educational sector is alarming, then those concerns have been amplified recently by the Ford government’s recent announcements that seem to devalue post-secondary education in general. In early March, the government announced that they will allow students, starting in Grade 11, to transition to full-time apprenticeship programs while still earning a high school diploma. The move was intended to address the labour shortages given the province’s stated intention to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031. While the impact of such a policy is still being hotly debated, the government followed it with a second announcement less than eight weeks later, this one impacting the policing labour shortage. Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference at the Ontario Police College, joined by Solicitor General Michael Kerzner and Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw, that the government would boost lagging police recruitment by eliminating a post-secondary education requirement to be hired as an officer and the province would also cover 100% of the costs for Basic Constable Training at the Ontario Police College. The three-month program currently costs $15,450. New police officers are required to complete it within six months of being hired. This after 2018 reforms to boost recruitment by relaxing the fitness standards for new policing applicants.

Both the March and April announcements may reasonably be interpreted as a direct rebuke of the importance of post-secondary education to the labour market. Back in March, when the first announcement was released, I commented in support of it on a LinkedIn post. I suggested that there is broader social benefit from an active pathway to employment directly out of high school, and that the trades are a perfect starting point. I boldly asserted what we should probably go down the list of occupations and truly audit which fields have a bona fide workplace need for post-secondary education. Within a few minutes of my post becoming public, a person with significant experience in the college system who I have a great deal of respect for contacted me and wanted to discuss my opinion. Given the premium I always place on open discourse, I gladly accepted the invitation. 

The person made the case that the government’s Skilled Trades announcement rolled back decades of advocacy intended to professionalize the industry. His strongest argument was that the government did not have a clear plan to ensure that those students entering apprenticeship programs prior to completing high school would actually graduate with a secondary school diploma. This may not seem like a significant problem until one considers the 37% attrition rate in the sector. Some of that turnover is positive—promotions, business ventures, etc.—but a lot of it is tied to injuries caused by stress on the body, pressure related to the seasonal nature of work, and social stigma on the quality of the occupation. My trusted interlocutor argued that many of those people would find themselves ill prepared to transition to other careers in the economy. After all, their highest level of completed education would render them generally unemployable in the broader labour market.

The policing announcement can be seen as equally problematic to post-secondary institutions. Almost all 24 Ontario public colleges and some private career colleges offer some version of a Police Foundations or law enforcement based program targeting aspiring police constables. Notwithstanding recent system wide dips in domestic enrolment, these programs have generally enjoyed the benefit of being both largely popular and relatively low cost to operate. However, they do not attract a large number of international students generally, and this could be a real problem should the announcement have an adverse impact of new domestic applications.

So how did we get here? In Canada, during the 1960s, most people finished high school, entered the workforce and began families. Only a small number of people, approximately 10%, entered university. According to a 2017 article by Steve Paiken of titled Ontario’s college have come a long way in 50 years, an old wartime factory in Scarborough would be leased out by the federal government allowing the province’s first community college to open its doors. Centennial College would become the site of new options for technical and practical education for 500 Ontarians not headed to university.

The Ontario college system of the sixties was intended to be an alternative to university, a more vocationally focused endeavour, directly connected to local economies and the labour market. While universities have been around for hundreds of years their primary focus and mission was never really about employment, at least not for the masses. Highly specialized university programs that led to professional degrees, medicine, law and engineering for instance do directly contribute to the labour force. However, the number of jobs in those fields when compared to the total number of jobs in the economy, would be statistically insignificant. College was meant to bridge the knowledge gap for blue-collar jobs such as the skilled trades, and office administrators, in so doing colleges would prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

As greater numbers of students entered post-secondary institutions, looking to upskill and upgrade their lives, the dynamics started to shift. They all sought that golden ticket to upward social mobility, they heard the arguments, they saw the success of all those privileged people who received an education and secured well paying jobs, who lived in larger homes and drove newer cars. It was the Canadian dream, the immigrant dream for all those arriving to call Canada home. It was the promise of a better life, and everyday Canadians were ready to take the plunge. By their estimation, the opportunity cost for delaying entry to the workforce would be minimal given they expected a significant return on their time and tuition money. The only kink in the plan might have been that everyone else had the same plan.

So, is our current situation a reflection of a government hedging its bet on labour over education, hoping the interconnectedness of the two fields can be minimized if we can increase economic productivity? Is the government gambling with the education and skill development of the future labour force? Or is this a market correction that was inevitable given the commodification of education and the rampant credential inflation? Compounded by the erosion of academic rigour compromised in favour of retention, a client-centric approach to students, an obsession with student satisfaction survey results and more broadly the diminishing marginal utility of a post-secondary education.

So is the government devaluing education? Or have we all played a participatory role?

This is the first in a three article series exploring the interconnectedness of the government policy and education. Please check back for the next article in the series coming soon.

(The views contained in this article are solely those of the author, intended for entertainment and opinion based editorials purposes only. They do not represent the views of any organization we are otherwise associated with.)

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