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After Meltdown, Back to School?

We need a new post-secondary for a post-recession world.

Crawford Kilian 27 Feb

Crawford Kilian, a contributing editor of The Tyee, taught at Capilano College for 40 years.

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Back to drawing board for universities.

The collapse of the world economy has evidently come as a surprise to the very well-educated people who run Canada's colleges and universities. An online search turns up very few documents about the long-term future of post-secondary.

It may be significant that two recent long-term studies are by consultants: a PowerPoint presentation given in January to the University of Victoria by Ken Steele of the Academica Group, and On the Brink, a grim forecast just published by the Education Policy Institute.

In the short term, post-secondary educators have tried to maintain business as usual: enough government funding to maintain big programs with as many students as possible. They see the recession as a temporary problem, and post-secondary itself as part of the "infrastructure" that will return us to yesterday's affluent society.

Actually, the colleges and universities could make things much worse by trying to restore a vanished status quo. But they could also help create a stable and sustainable society by creating a new kind of post-secondary.

This year, as Ken Steele's presentation shows, B.C. is going through a tectonic shift in demographics: We now have more people aged 55 to 64 than aged 15 to 24. The trend will continue far into the future.

Fatally false premises

A few education watchers have worried for decades about this. Post-secondary officials have carefully projected their future sources of students. But their plans have been based on fatally false premises.

The first premise was the assumption of indefinite economic expansion. That in turn supported the premise of indefinitely expanding schools. The third premise was that jobs in an expanding economy would require ever-higher levels of education. So even with lower government funding, students could be counted on to make up the shortfall. If the traditional 18-to-24 group dwindled, "non-traditional" students would take their place.

After all, their education would bring them so much added income that they could pay back their debts and still have money for lots of consumer goods and services. The whole point of higher education was higher income for higher consumption.

These premises led to the convenient conclusion that we would always find both students and the money to fund their education -- at least in the short term.

Like workers living paycheque to paycheque, post-secondary schools live budget to budget. Funded largely by government, they follow an agenda driven by politicians, who themselves live election to election. No one has time to consider long-term needs. Everyone falls back, in the current downturn, on recent experience: the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s.

The comparison seems apt. As in those recessions, the schools have seen a surge in enrolments. This would seem to be good news: Students are upgrading their qualifications, faculty members are busy, and we'll emerge from the current recession with a new generation of highly skilled workers eager to make money and spend it.

But the system is already underfunded. Since 2002, B.C. post-secondary has had to cram every class as full as possible, even at the cost of cutting courses and programs that don't put enough students in seats.

An ethical quandary for educators

The students are in those seats not to learn, but to compete: to acquire a piece of paper that puts them ahead of other job seekers. Faculty, meanwhile, are under pressure to admit as many warm bodies as possible, especially in career-training programs. They have an interest in ignoring poor qualifications, and in being upbeat about their graduates' job prospects.

Ethically, then, educators are in an awkward spot. Their own jobs depend on full classes and employed graduates. Programs that can't deliver have been shut down like unprofitable auto plants. But a student who can't deliver may still squeak through.

In previous downturns, governments cut funding and schools made up the difference by charging students more. Students have gone increasingly in debt (now well over $13 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students), assuming like first-time homebuyers that the return on their investment would repay that debt. Now they face the prospect of going underwater like other subprime borrowers.

Current post-secondary programs arose in times of prosperity to meet the demands of expanding fields like law, business and education itself. When earlier graduates are going broke, or waiting for the next round of layoffs, should educators recruit more students to go into debt and to train for a collapsed economic model?

So far the answer is a resounding yes. Politicians, educators and students all seem to be scrambling to return to 2006. The B.C. government says it's "preparing students to take their places in the province's knowledge economy." Faculty associations complain that their funding isn't enough to get us back there. Students complain about tuition costs and loans, but sign up for the same old programs and more debt.

Living by Mr. Micawber's philosophy

Like Mr. Micawber, post-secondary lives on hopes that something will turn up: more international students, more immigrants, more "non-traditional" students like the middle-aged and First Nations.

You would think that such highly educated people, facing the ruin of the old order, would be imaginative enough to find paths to a new order. It's unlikely that we'll ever see a 2006 economy again, and suppose we did -- it would be the same old emission-heavy, over-consuming economy that got us into our present environmental mess.

Colleges and universities should not try to rebuild Humpty Dumpty. Their future success doesn't involve finding new sources of students and cheaper ways to teach them, but finding ways to make at least a few students highly unpredictable.

The schools of the 1960s and '70s barely noticed computers; at best they trained people for instant obsolescence as keypunch operators. It took dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to create an industry that changed the world. Educators then had to scramble to train themselves and their students for an unforeseen status quo.

Given our economic and environmental problems, we can't go back to the good old days of logging, fishing and real-estate bubbles. But we don't know what would create a comparable and sustainable prosperity.

Should post-secondary downsize itself?

One approach would be to downsize post-secondary and return it to its original function of training scholars. Instead of subsidizing business with pre-trained employees, post-secondary would leave the training to the businesses themselves. The universities would focus on surprising and shocking their few remaining students into new forms of thought and analysis.

Such an education might inspire new gadgets to fuel a new economy. Or inspire graduates to live without gadgets or the need for ever-increasing wealth. It hardly matters, because post-secondary wouldn't try to sustain yesterday's society.

In an unprecedented crisis, post-secondary could ditch precedent also. Instead of imposing our own discredited ambitions on the next generation, we could give our students a survival kit: true critical thinking skills, and the freedom to choose their own solutions to the problems we've bequeathed them. After all, do we really expect off-the-shelf solutions to climate wars, species extinctions, mass migrations and an aging population?

So rather than pump money into preparing students for a vanished world, governments should fund post-secondary schools to study and teach whatever they feel like, regardless of employability. Let them flunk students without fear of losing funding. And let them enroll students to study what they like, as long as they work hard and engage with society as well as with their subject.

If post-secondary were as radically conservative as that, it might actually serve the needs of this century instead of the last. Its graduates would surprise us, but also, I suspect, delight us. They might be "poorer" than we, but they would be far freer to invent a truly prosperous and humane society.

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