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A Blueprint For Fixing Post-Secondary Education

Finland offers lessons on making education work for students, staff and country.

Crawford Kilian 23 Mar

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Canadian post-secondary education can’t continue on the same path it has followed for the last 25 years or so.

As a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives points out, just in the past 15 years college tuition has doubled, university tuition has tripled, public student debt has grown to well beyond $28 billion, and many who work and teach in post-secondary institutions have become members of the precariat, scraping along on temporary appointments.

The CCPA also notes that government’s share of post-secondary funding has shrunk from 82.7 per cent in 1982 to 54.9 per cent in 2012, while tuition revenues have risen from 13.8 per cent to 37.5 per cent. The only post-secondary sector to see real growth is management, whose numbers and salaries have swollen dramatically.

This is a far cry from what Canada promised in 1976 when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau signed the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Among other things, the covenant promised that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” We have gone in the opposite direction.

A seven-point plan

The CCPA offers a seven-point plan for the renewal of Canadian post-secondary education:

Honouring Canada’s treaty commitment on post-secondary education Indigenous peoples.

Restoring core federal funding for post-secondary.

Eliminating tuition fees for all post-secondary students in all programs.

Improving federal student financial aid.

Increasing funding for post-secondary research and scholarship.

Investing in skilled trades apprenticeships and adult education.

Passing a federal Post-Secondary Education Act.

These may seem like hopelessly idealistic measures, as impossible to achieve as medicare once seemed to be. Yet at least one country is already running a formidable post-secondary system along very similar lines.

Finland’s 5.5 million population is roughly comparable with B.C.’s 4.6 million. But the Finns support 14 universities plus 24 “universities of applied science” or polytechnics, the equivalents of our 25 public post-secondary institutions — colleges, institutes, and teaching universities.

The OECD report Education at a Glance 2016 says Canada spends $21,458 per capita, in U.S. dollars, on post-secondary education, compared to the Americans’ $27,924; Finland spends $17,868. (The OECD average is $15,772.) An average Finnish university professor earns the Canadian equivalent of $53,000 to $76,000 a year, well below Canadian salary levels for university professors.

Statistics Finland says university education and research get 2.3 billion euros ($3.3 billion Canadian) from government. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says the Canadian federal government in 2013-14 spent $12.3 billion; tuition brought in $8.7 billion. The B.C. government provides about $1.9 billion.

According to an OECD table, 40.5 per cent of Finns aged 25-34 have tertiary education, and 46.5 per cent of Americans. Canada does far better with 59.2 per cent — but we’re left in the post-secondary dust by Japan (59.6 per cent) and Korea (69 per cent).

Start a household or pay down debt?

We might hesitate to inflict the kind of pressure on undergraduates that Korean and Japanese students endure, and the Finns would recoil at the $8.7-billion cost we impose on our students each year. Finnish grads, after all, can go into their careers without the brutal debt burden ours carry; young Finns can start setting up their own households and raising their families instead of paying down debts. (And many, clearly, can start out with just a solid high school education.)

Finnish post-secondary is also tuition-free for foreign students from the European Union — and until recently was tuition-free for all foreign students. Many university and graduate programs are taught in English, which is most EU citizens’ second language. This policy is intended to attract bright foreigners who may well decide to stay after graduation; even if they go home, they will be part of an old boys’ and old girls’ network supporting trade between Finland and their own countries.

The Finns see post-secondary education not as a private good for students but as a national good that makes their country more competitive. They support the liberal arts as well as science, engineering, and business. After all, many triumphs of science, engineering, and business are based on the arts, from blockbuster movies to music to graphic design to computer games.

Ethnically, Finland is not quite as homogeneous as it’s made out to be. Like other Nordic countries it has growing numbers of migrants and refugees, as well as the Saami minority (better known to us as the Lapps) in the far north. Saami studies are an important part of the system. Science-oriented Oulu University, for example, is at the same latitude as Dawson City in the Yukon. With a student population of 14,000, Oulu includes the Giellagas Institute, which focuses on Saami linguistics and culture.

So Finland shows that the CCPA’s vision for post-secondary can be achieved even in a small northern country. It benefits both the students and the country that supports them. Students and country alike are better prepared for a turbulent and uncertain future.

Not a turnkey solution

It’s unlikely, though, that Canada could simply adopt the Finnish system. To take just one aspect, suppose we dropped tuition fees next September, just for Canadian citizens and residents. Our campuses would be swamped, as they were when Canadian veterans came home, got free tuition, and lived in tents on the UBC campus for years.

Current college and university faculty are far too few to cope with such an onslaught, especially when so many new students would be poor, Indigenous, refugees, or dealing with disabilities — all of whom would also need expert support staff.

And what if we succeeded in graduating most of those new students? What kind of work could we offer them? And if we could give them jobs, where could we house them and their families?

Similarly, if we tried free tuition for international students, we’d have hundreds of millions of applicants (likely including a couple of million Americans, documented or otherwise). But create a kind of Rhodes scholarship for the best and brightest foreign students, and we could headhunt the world — including Finland.

Canadian post-secondary, using the Finnish approach, could push the percentage of university and college graduates even past the Japanese and Koreans. But it would be a catastrophic success without careful planning and a huge expansion of our education and urban infrastructure.

Do it right, and Canadian universities and colleges would draw the world’s best and brightest. Harvard and Oxford would be seen as stepping-stones to Dalhousie or UBC or Laval, where the real action is. The sheer brainpower on our campuses would draw business frantic to hire our graduates.

Do it wrong, and it would be a mess. Do it as we have been doing it, and we’ll just spend more billions to produce the best-educated baristas the world has ever seen.  [Tyee]

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