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Commentary

University is still the surest path to prosperity

September 3, 2012

This op-ed was published in the Globe and Mail on September 3, 2012

By Paul Davidson
President and CEO
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Like the rush to buy new running shoes for the kids and the shortening of summer evenings, the last days of August routinely bring a wave of editorial comment questioning the value of a university education, bemoaning the cost of tuition, and lamenting a supposed by-gone golden age of higher education. More recently, these have been coupled with articles suggesting today’s graduates are ill-prepared for the workforce and that universities are failing to advance Canada’s research and innovation agenda.

While it is true that tuition has increased in recent years, so too has the value of a degree. The income premium of a university degree is large and growing. University graduates will on average earn $1.3 million more during their careers than a high school graduate and $1 million more than a college grad. And contrary to what you read in the papers, there are jobs for university graduates. Between July 2008 and July 2012 there were 700,000 new jobs for university graduates in Canada compared with 320,000 for college grads, and a net loss of 640,000 jobs for those with no postsecondary education.

Student debt load is a serious issue that we should all work to address – but it is important to note that more than four out of 10 students in Canada graduate completely debt-free. For those that do have debt, almost one-third owe less than $12,000. How do we make sure that the balance among private value, public benefit and access is appropriate?

Canadians typically overestimate the cost of a degree and underestimate its value. In a world of greater uncertainty, a university education remains the surest path to prosperity for Canadians.

One of the greatest public policy achievements of the last three decades is expanded access to Canada’s high quality higher education system. Once the preserve of Canada’s elite – in 1980, only 10 percent of Canada’s young people attended university – full-time enrolment has since increased steadily so that this fall, one in every four young Canadians will be enrolled full-time. Indeed, university enrolment has grown by more than 50 percent since 2000 alone. In fact, undergraduate enrolment surpassed the one million student mark for the first time last fall. Canada will need all of them, and more, to offset the retirement wave that is already underway. In the next 20 years, six million Canadians are set to retire. Many of those jobs, as well as new jobs being created in an increasingly knowledge-driven world, will need to be filled by university graduates. Public investment to ensure today’s students get the quality education experience of previous generations is essential to Canada’s economic strength in the years ahead.

Frankly, public investments have not kept pace with the dramatic expansion of enrolment. In fact, on a per student basis, provincial support for university operating budgets remains at the same level as it was in 1997. You read that right. While 20 years earlier, government operating support averaged $22,400 per student, by 1997 it had fallen to $11,600 and it has stayed at that level ever since. It can be argued that universities today are delivering substantially more with substantially less.

The development of co-op, internship and work placements – both in industry and broader society – has become a distinguishing characteristic of the Canadian university experience. Once an opportunity in a few programs at a few universities, today more than half of all students will have the opportunity of putting ideas to work during the course of their studies. These students benefit from this early exposure to the working world – as do businesses benefit from a ready source of new ideas, approaches and energy.

With more than half of Canada’s faculty hired in the last 10 years, campuses across the country have a new generation of professors providing their students with opportunities for hands-on research experiences – experiences that excite the imagination and help build a culture of innovation. Going to university is more than a rite of passage. It is an opportunity to engage in the pursuit of ideas and research that generates new knowledge, which can then be transformed into products, processes and services. The research environment is a critical training ground for students. The ability to identify a problem, test solutions, and apply new knowledge in related areas is the very definition of innovation and at the heart of the university mission. Research transforms how we think, act and live.

Federal investments in research and innovation since 1997 have provided Canada with an extraordinary platform upon which to conduct leading research that benefits Canadians and the world. These investments are integral to ensuring Canada a prominent place in a globalized world. More important, they are an essential component in finding the new discoveries and nurturing the talent that will lead to enhanced economic prospects for all Canadians. And perhaps most importantly, learning in a research-enriched environment provides university graduates with the 21st century ideas and skills that today’s employers want – and need.

Oh, and those back-to-school running shoes you’re buying? They’re better than ever, thanks to the work of university researchers including those at the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab – home to one of the world’s leading experts in the biomechanics of sports shoes.